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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Dead

Christian Kracht

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To purchase The Dead

Title: The Dead
Author: Christian Kracht
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 195 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Dead - US
The Dead - UK
The Dead - Canada
Die Toten - Deutschland
  • German title: Die Toten
  • Translated by Daniel Bowles

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Our Assessment:

B : curiously mannered mix of a story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 3/9/2016 Jan Wiele
Harper's . 7/2018 Lidija Haas
NZZ . 11/9/2016 Philipp Theisohn
Publishers Weekly B- 9/4/2018 .
TLS . 26/4/2019 Jan Wilm
World Lit. Today . Winter/2019 Ulf Zimmermann
Die Zeit . 9/9/2016 Felix Stephan

  Review Consensus:

  Stylized, and interesting perspective; opinions very mixed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Krachts Text ist gespickt mit Verweisen und Anspielungen auf Filme, wimmelt von Namen zwischen Ozu, Murnau, Dowschenko, Vigo und Bresson und verarbeitet auch historische Ereignisse wie das Attentat auf den japanischen Premierminister Inukai Tsuyoshi (.....) (I)m Mittelpunkt fast jeder einzelnen Erzählepisode stehen Szenen der Gewalt, und zwar vor allem solche durch das Medium des Films vermittelte. (...) Krachts Sprache, die so antiquiert ist wie eine Talgkerze. Es gibt sie noch, die kostbaren Worte." - Jan Wiele, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Framed by two highly aestheticized death scenes that balance precariously between real and unreal, the book is structured more by its images and digressions than by its nominal plot. Even the details snatched from history seem dreamlike." - Lidija Haas, Harper's

  • "Krachts Roman ist das Resultat einer Planänderung, einer Verschiebung. Er will keine Allegorie des Grauens sein, sondern eine «Allegorie der Allegorie»: Er will erzählen, wie man vom Grauen erzählt. (...) Gefährlicher war Kracht vielleicht nie, und das Risiko, das er in Die Toten» eingeht, ist kein geringes. Leicht missversteht man den ästhetisch-apathischen Gestus, den er hier seinen Figuren angedeihen lässt, als eine verheerende, eine programmatische Depolitisierung." - Philipp Theisohn, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Krachtís strangely filmic prose (...) leads to some inspired moments and images, but readers may be disappointed by the novelís evasive attitude toward the story." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Christian Krachtís The Dead is wholly unpredictable. (...) Daniel Bowlesís translation is excellent, though it sometimes lacks the beautifully modulated mannerisms of the original German, the languid pacing of Krachtís prose and the quaint vocabulary that blends the idiom of the Weimar Republic and its aftermath with the vernacular of the present." - Jan Wilm, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Unlike the films of that era, Krachtís novel exposes the reader to a vast array of color, especially a surfeit of the bright reds of blood and of the ubiquitous Nazi flags signaling all too ominously this most tragically surreal moment in recent history. All this has once again been masterfully translated by Daniel Bowles" - Ulf Zimmermann, World Literature Today

  • "In Die Toten stolpern die Figuren von einem grotesken Irrtum zum nächsten und das, was dabei herauskommt, nennt man dann Geschichte. (...) Christian Kracht hat diesen Roman modelliert wie ein Keramiker seine Schalen oder ein Kalligraf seine Schriftzüge: mit ruhiger Hand, vor Augen das perfekte Ergebnis. Und wenn es so etwas geben sollte wie den perfekten, globalen Gegenwartsroman, ist Kracht ihm möglicherweise ziemlich nahegekommen. Allerdings sähe diese Gattung dann aus wie eine viktorianische Schmuckschatulle: prachtvoll, campy, funkelnd und auch ein bisschen freudlos." - Felix Stephan, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: this review is based on the German original, but I was able to consult and refer to Daniel Bowles's translation, and all quotes are from his English version.]

       The Dead is set in the early 1930s, and its main characters are two (fictional) film directors, the (German-)Swiss Emil Nägeli and the Japanese Masahiko Amakasu. It is a time of transitions -- from silent film to ones with sound, for one; politically, for another: among the major incidents in the novel is the May 15 Incident, the assassination of Japanese Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, which Charlie Chaplin (one of the many real-life figures in the novel) narrowly escaped. For the central figures -- the two directors, as well as Nägeli's fiancée, Ida von Üxküll -- it becomes a novel of thwarted visions and ambitions: as is perhaps to be expected in a novel titled The Dead their endings (and they have separate endings, not one big, happy one) are not the most pleasant (thanks also, in no small part, to Chaplin ...).
       The novel opens cinematically-spectacularly -- and voyeuristically --, and opens with death, a camera filming a scene through a hole in a wall in a Tokyo house: a young military officer committing seppuku. Set in the world and milieu of cinema -- both industry and art --, the novel avoids the emerging and then dominant film-world epicenter, Hollywood, until the last section, and at first the story moves back and forth between two other centers: the worlds of Japanese and German cinema, with Amakasu in Japan and Nägeli in Europe. (Meanwhile, Nägeli's fiancée is already in Japan, though she only really emerges as a (bridging) character when Nägeli joins her there.)
       Amakasu writes to the Germans, to propose an alliance of sorts between the German and Japanese film industries, a "celluloid axis" to counter the dominance of Hollywood (as the Americans were exerting pressure on Japan to reopen its film market to American films -- threatening to cast: "not only all villains, but also generally all negatively connoted roles in each and every U.S. production, solely with Japanese-born actors" if they didn't get their way). He suggests sending over one of the German masters, to help expand Japanese horizons. The idea finds some support in Germany; indeed they expand on it, finding a fabulous amount of funding for the director to make a film while in Japan -- and the man who eventually gets the call is Nägeli.
       Nägeli certainly thinks highly of himself:

At the end of his life, Nägli will say that there had been only five geniuses in a hundred years of cinema: Bresson, Vigo, Dovzhenko, Ozu, and he himself.
       Typically, a recent film of his was on the life and death of Madame Tussaud -- a person who captured lives and related stories in yet another static medium. Typically, too, that film -- and his artistic vision -- were: "censored and mutilated" (though notably not due to German political pressures but rather at the behest of the archbishop of Paris).
       The story looks back, at some length, on both directors' backgrounds, and especially the traumas from their childhoods. Amakasu was a linguistic prodigy, but felt abandoned by his parents when he was sent off to a harsh boarding school; Nägeli also suffered from parental coldness -- with attempts at some connection, as when he dotes on an unappreciative pet rabbit, also not turning out well.
       The German officials are happy enough to send Nägeli off with an enormous amount of money and vague plans to film a proper horror film. In fact, Nägeli has other ideas, and another vision, while others, eventually creeping out of an increasingly inhospitable Germany -- notably theorist Siegfried Kracauer and director Fritz Lang -- do their best in subverting the official concept, too (egging Nägeli on to demand as much money as possible, among other things: "you really have to fleece the Reich").
       In Japan, Nägeli is reunited with his fiancée -- and discovers that she is sleeping with Amakasu. In this cinematic story, he ntaurally chooses to passively observe (and film ...) rather than interfere when he catches them in the act: the players here are voyeurs, whether on the world- or most domestic stage. Charlie Chaplin is in town too -- eventually hastily leaving the country aboard a ship, with Ida and Amakasu, after having narrowly avoided being with the Prime Minister when he was murdered.
       The story accelerates, especially in its end, events and then the years unspooling quickly. Dreams of spectacular Hollywood-like success prove elusive, from Nägeli's impressionistic film ("Not all viewers stay awake" when the rough cut is first screened) to Ida's efforts to make it in the film capital itself -- never mind Amakasu.
       There is quite a bit of plot and action to The Dead, but it is hardly at the center. Like his directors, Kracht is less concerned with presenting a straightforward thriller than a set of scenes, images, and tableaus, and in evoking strong reactions. Like his directors still working with silent film in an age where sound has already begun to establish itself, Kracht's novel feels old-fashioned in its approach -- and so also, especially, its style and language. This is carefully mannered writing -- to quite good effect (so also in Daniel Bowles' translation, which conveys the feel Kracht seems to be going for).
       The Dead captures its time -- the early 1930s, with its political, social, and cultural unrest -- well, including, for the most part, in its use of celebrity cameos. The concept of a "celluloid axis" between Japan and Germany nicely prefigures the later (political-military) Axis (and among Kracht's nice subtle touches is the small nod to the third Axis power, having the Germans whisper to Nägeli that, as far as the funds for the film go: "one portion's from Cinecittà and has to go back there, but what's gone isn't so easy to return"). Kracht uses this particular age of cinema very well too, and the examples of the work he presents (mainly, but not solely, Nägeli's) work well with/in the larger story.
       The Dead itself isn't quite the literary equivalent of an art-house film, but there's a flatness to it -- in part also due to the almost clinical presentation, and Kracht's refusal to indulge in his spectacles (as a thriller, and thriller-flick, would). It's an odd piece of work: intriguing, often vivid, and memorable, in a way, but just not quite right, either.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 April 2018

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The Dead: Reviews: Christian Kracht: Other books by Christian Kracht under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Christian Kracht was born in 1966.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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