Presently Engelhardt speaks of the coconut which of course neither the peasant nor his wife nor the farm girl has ever tasted or seen he tells of the idea of encircling the globe with coconut colonies, rising from his seat his almost pathological shyness vanishes when he champions his cause as an orator before sympathetic ears speaking of the sacred duty of one day paying hommage to the sun, naked in the temple of palms, only here, and he gestures around himself with outstretched arms it will not work.
Unfortunately, too long the inhospitable winter, too narrow the minds of the philistins, too loud the machines of the factories, Engelhardt climbs from the bench onto the table and down again exclaiming his credo that only those lands in eternal sunlight will survive and in them only those people who allow the salutary and beneficent rays of the day star to caress skin and head unfettered by clothing. These brothers and sisters here have made a promising start he says but they really must now sell their farm and follow him, leaving Bavaria as Moses left Egypt of old and booking passage on a ship to the Equator.
Welcome to Imperium, read for German lit month VIII
and my unusually long opening quote, but this book in its careful writing doesn’t lend itself to short quotes, more careful build ups than clever phrases. The story is set in the period at the first years of the twentieth century and concerns Engelhardt, a very intense young man and the realisation of his dream to live from the culture of the coconut whilst going naked in a tropical paradise. Here, in the quote where he has been welcomed on a naturalist farm in Bavaria he preaches about his vision and his first step, setting up in the South Sea colonies in German New Guinea. Engelhardt makes the long journey out to Herberstshöhe, the capital of Neupommern, meeting many larger than life characters on the way and, trusting those looking to help him has most of his savings stolen. When he arrives the local Consul arranges with Emma Forsayth known as the queen Emma to sell him an inhabited island, Kabacon, for his planned plantation for which he puts his entire future harvest in hock for many years to come, the following quote describes his arrival on his island and of course the book’s style:
He fell to his knees in the sand so overcome was he, and to the black men in the boat and the few natives who had found their way to the beach with a certain phlegmatic curiosity, one of them even wore a bone fragment in his lower lip as though he were parodying himself or his race, it looked as if a pious man of god were praying there before them. It might remind us civilised peoples of a depiction of the landing of the conquistador Hernan Cortez on the virginal shore of San Juan de Ulua perhaps painted by turns if this were even possible by El Greco and Gaugin each of whom by an expressive jagged stroke of the brush once more conferred upon the kneeling conqueror Engelhardt the ascetic features of Jesus Christ, thus the seizure of the island of Cabacon by our friend looked quite different depending of the viewpoint from which one observed the scenario and who one actually was.
As time over on, Engelhardt, accepted as an eccentric by the natives, who incidentally have no idea that their island has been sold and would not understand the concept, and living off of a diet made up exclusively of coconuts becomes slowly weaker and weaker as malnutrition sets in. Over time he has occasional visitors, one of which a popular musician Max Lützow who, by his stories sent back to Germany, attracts to him a cult following of young Germans with no money that decide to come and join him on his island and live as him exclusively from coconuts, they reach Herberstshöhe but not Kabacon, leading to a shanty town building up of penniless young Germans sick from tropical diseases on the outskirts of Herbertshöhe, a situation completely unacceptable for the imperial government leading to attempts by the Consul to have Engelhardt assassinated.
Kracht brings us a well constructed novel based on a true story, Engelhardt did exist, and a time in history where earnest people lived out their destinies before the outbreak of the world wars.
First Published in German as “Imperium” in 2012 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch.
Translated into English by Daniel Bowles and published in 2015 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux