An outrageous, fantastical, uncategorizable novel of obsession, adventure, and coconuts, Christian Kracht’s Imperium has been described by Karl Ove Knausgaard as “astonishing and captivating,” a “Conradian literary adventure for our time.” In this excerpt, the novel’s hero, an obsessive vegetarian and devoted nudist named August Engelhardt, has finally settled down on his private island and begins his transformation into the coconut king of the South Pacific—the rest of the world be damned!
Now that we have endeavored to tell of our poor friend’s past, we will skip a few short years, like an untiring, lofty seabird for whom crossing the time zones of our globe is of no consequence whatsoever, indeed, who neither notices nor reflects upon them, and visit August Engelhardt again where we left him a few pages ago: walking stark naked on the beach—on his own beach, mind you—stooping here and there to pick up an especially lovely shell and slip it into a wicker basket he has thrown over his shoulder.
The Time Statute of the German Empire, which was passed a good decade ago in Berlin and aptly went into effect on April 1st shortly before the turn of the century, ensured that a uniform hour could be read from the clocks of His Imperial Majesty’s German subjects throughout the entire motherland. In the colonies, meanwhile, one told time according to the respective world time zone, while on the isle of Kabakon, in a sense, a time outside of time prevailed. Which is to say Engelhardt’s clock, which he had placed on a piece of drift wood serving as a night table and wound with considerable regularity by means of a little key, had gone into arrears, temporally speaking, due to a single grain of sand; the granule had made itself comfortable within the clock between the spring and one of the hundred whirring cogs and, since it consisted of hard, pulverized corallite, was inducing a minute deceleration in the progression of Kabakonian time.
To be sure, Engelhardt did not notice this fact right away, nor even after a few days; in fact, a few years had to pass on Kabakon before the effect of the grain of sand made itself felt. The retardation was such that the clock did not lose even one second per day, and yet something gnawed and ate at Engelhardt, who expected something like a secure footing in space from a correct indication of time. He thought himself in the ethereal, cosmic present—should he have to forsake it, that would mean for him stepping out of time, which is to say, going mad.
That in far-away Switzerland another young vegetarian working in a patent office was compiling the theoretical underpinnings for his dissertation at precisely that moment, the contents of which but a few years later would turn upside down not only all of mankind’s previous knowledge, but to a certain extent also the viewpoint from which one perceived the world and this knowledge, and even time, was unknown to Engelhardt.
When he contemplated whether his clock might not be running more slowly—it just seemed to him that way since he of course could not draw any comparisons to genuine, real time (the pendulum clock in the governor’s residence over in Herbertshöhe, which one might look to as the standard time for the Protectorate, had stopped due to the negligence of the staff while Hahl was convalescing in Singapore)—he suddenly had the feeling he was going to fall backwards; a painful, nagging twinge in the left upper arm stabbed into him, just near the heart, as if a stroke were actually felling him at his young age. He distinctly saw the clock ticking away, his by now finished rattan cot, and the mosquito net attached above it with a coir rope. He was already falling into time when there appeared before his eyes, at first hazily, then in downright razor-sharp focus, not only the canary-yellow and violet painted walls of his childhood nursery, but the perfumed manifestation of his mother, bending over him with tip of her tongue stuck out in worry and working over his hot forehead with an iced cotton cloth. His mother could not only be seen; she could in fact be felt, as if she were not long dead but present and infinite in the extreme—the boundless love that he felt for her was indeed a cosmic, a divine sensation.
With gentle and calming words, his mother led him out onto the terrace of his parents’ home, and he became aware of the rosebushes that grew down in the garden exuding their heavy scent. It was the middle of the night. The summer crickets were putting on their somniferous night concert when his mother gestured toward the sky to show him that enormous wheel of fire rotating above in the inky firmament. To the child it looked like a savagely hungry, insatiable mouth devouring everything.
Trembling with fear, he closed his eyes to the monstrous, burning portent, hiding his face in his mother’s bosom, the cozy fullness of which instantly sent him falling deeper, which is to say, further up, the current of time, until he came to lie in a perambulator, immobile, as his infant body was not able to turn or stretch out its little hands. And yet they were able to feel the embroidered blanket with which he had been tucked in; in fact, he discerned the pale-blue checkered pattern of a baby bonnet at the edge of his field of vision and saw above him the infinite forkings of a summery cherry tree under which someone had pushed the pram at midday. He heard ringing laughter, glasses clinked together, the barking of a dachshund. A pink blossom, marbled somewhat with midnight-blue at the edges, glided down slowly and came to rest gently on his little face.
Unexpectedly, the queasy feeling that his body was floating overcame him. It was even earlier now. A soft surface that engulfed him, then the not unpleasant impression that he was being drawn across pumice, over a whole volcanic expanse made of this very rock; for hours he floated a few inches above that expanse as if he were a helium balloon about to burst because of the rough surface of the stone, but then which laboriously manages to get free; there was a precipice, a pulling, a dragging. Finally he fell downward, a catastrophic plunge toward the earth, as if he himself were that blossom that had shuttled down from the treetop. Then he awoke.
• • •
During his stay on his island, Engelhardt had not only lost several pounds, but had also become wiry and muscular; his skin was now a rich dark brown, and his hair and beard, which he slathered with coconut oil every morning, had grown bright blond and golden from the sun and salt. Pursuant to his instructions, the oil his employees squeezed on Kabakon was bottled in half-liter flasks on the mainland and given an appealing label designed by the Herbertshöhe postmaster, which showed Engelhardt’s somewhat touched-up, bearded profile. (The alternative—providing from the congealed oil the base ingredient for Palmin cooking fat and the margarine much in demand in Germany—was completely out of the question for him, for ethical reasons; he would most certainly not supply his countrymen with vegetable oil in which to sizzle their Sunday beefsteak).
The oil-refining process Engelhardt paid out of pocket (or rather on credit from Queen Emma, who was still, more or less, smiling inscrutably), a somewhat doubled advance payment; one day that Kabakon Oil, which already lay stacked in the Forsayth trading post packed in dozens of wooden crates, would surely find a buyer.
To this end, Engelhardt had established several very promising contacts in Australia, notwithstanding the fact that the letters he dispatched to Darwin, Cairns, and Sydney, as befell mailed advertisements all over the world, were briefly skimmed, then stacked, cut down the middle, and reused as coarse toilet paper; his letters in particular were employed in the staff privy of the accountant’s office at a copper and bauxite mine not far from Cairns.
The writings that told of the therapeutic, thoroughly beneficial, and diverse possible applications of his Kabakon Coconut Oil, in Engelhardt’s quite literary but somewhat awkward English, served the visitors to that Australian toilet only to a limited extent as entertaining reading while they did their business, as they had been perforated, cut, and separated at precisely those areas that would have enabled an unhindered read in complete sentences. Reassembled and reread with the hundreds of similar mailed advertisements, they no longer made any sense of course. Thus, his letters wandered: scanned fleetingly, bereft of meaning, wadded up, and smeared with filth, they landed in a seepage pit on that gigantic, almost uninhabited continent to the south, which Engelhardt once visited with friendly intentions during the time remaining for him in the Protectorate, but whose soldierly and coarse, mostly drunken inhabitants so disgusted him that after only a week and a half he boarded a mail steamer to return to New Pomerania.
The humiliating ends that befell his brochures remained concealed from Engelhardt. Had he found out, he would scarcely have decamped for Cairns; nor was he able to anticipate anything of the great calamity later to be dubbed the First World War. So it was only a premonition that afflicted him as he sauntered through the alleys of that Queensland gold mining town.
The following had happened to him: the wooden door of a public house had been pushed open, and a bearded colored man, a Pacific islander obviously, had fallen on his back onto the dirt road, uttering a dull, grunting cry. The black man rolled over on his stomach in anguish and crawled toward Engelhardt; a throng of white Australians followed him out of the pub, whereupon he was cruelly beset with kicks until he could hardly ward off their brutal blows any further. He came to rest before Engelhardt with arm outstretched, bleeding and coughing and motionless. Recalling that he himself had once been so beaten, on that beach in East Prussia, Engelhardt knelt down and tried to lift the victim up by the shoulders, but the white men, intoxicated nearly to the point of dehumanization, shoved him back brusquely, screaming nigger lover! and other despicable words.
One ought not treat a human being like that, Engelhardt said, growing furious, and all at once he sprouted wings of courage, and he stood up straight, a slight, rickety figure against six or seven rough gold panners. One now noticed his German accent, called him dirty Hun, and raised his fists to pummel him as well. Another held him back, saying that there would be war between Edward and the Kaiser soon enough anyway, and we’ll teach ’em manners then, those bastard Germans. Then, bawling out patriotic songs, they withdrew to the counter of the canteen bar whose publican, as was customary in those days in Australia, had diluted the brandy with gun powder and cayenne pepper, to enhance the effect of the alcohol on the one hand and, on the other, to mask the repulsive taste of his hooch with a false, fiery note.
Aha, Engelhardt thought to himself. And, after putting a few shillings into the wounded colored man’s still outstretched hand, he made his way back to the boardinghouse room on the second floor of a clothier’s, lay down on his bed with a sigh, and ruminated on the encounter. Could it not be that the subjects of His Britannic Majesty would one day annex the German Protectorate just like that, were the war they had just prophesied to him, Engelhardt, actually to occur? Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, New Pomerania, and the smaller islands were defended by a mere handful of German soldiers, and it was precisely the extraordinary remoteness and irrelevance of the colony that had to seem tempting to a bellicose people, as the British doubtless were—much like raspberry cake would be to a hungry child. Engelhardt was, please note, unable to sense anything of the gigantic conflagration that would cover the globe a few years later, but from then on his senses were sharpened, his image of the British and young Australia altered forever by the encounter in Cairns: would the sea become an Anglo-Saxon Pacific, would he be left to do as he pleased, on his Kabakon? Hardly. Wouldn’t the little isle instead be annexed as well and his workers henceforth required to slave at his coconut palms for the English king? Then that free, that German, paradise would be finished.
While he was thinking this, next door, virtually tête-à-tête with him and separated only by thin sheet of plywood that served as a divider for the boardinghouse rooms, lay a young man who was not dissimilar to Engelhardt in habitus and countenance, likewise keenly contemplating, though his thoughts at the moment did not revolve around a potential war between the German Reich and Great Britain, but around yeast paste. Halsey was a Seventh Day Adventist and baker, hailed from the United States, also had a rather slight build, and was developing ways to popularize natural foods. He had ended up in Australia because the Christian-Adventist company for which he worked had dispatched him there to sideline him on the one hand (for he was somewhat of an oddball) and, on the other, to give him the opportunity to prove himself by running riot, so to speak, over the sixth continent. Could be, his masters in the far off state of Michigan thought, could be that young Halsey will make something of himself down there among the kangaroos.
The Kellogg brothers had recently founded the Sanitas Food Company in the United States, you see, and, with their idea for producing so-called breakfast cereals palatable to people, they were well on their way not only toward triggering a small revolution in the eating habits of their countrymen, but also toward becoming dizzyingly rich.
Young Halsey had asked the two brothers for an appointment, had appeared in their sparse, orderly office, and had then thoroughly impressed upon them with the conviction of an incensed fanatic that cereals were by no means the right path to pure Adventist doctrine because ingesting them into the body necessitated the addition of cow’s milk—no one wanted to eat dry cereal alone. But the milk that provided the lubricant, as it were, was obviously an animal product; thus, they must cease cereal production immediately and come up with something new that could teach the American consumer to be a vegetarian. Good Lord, off to Australia with him, the brothers thought, for they may have been pious adherents of their Adventist faith, but were simultaneously incorrigible, unalloyed Yankees, confident of business as a raison d’être. And so Halsey traveled by steamer from San Francisco (which would be almost completely destroyed by an earthquake a very short time after his embarkation) across to Sydney and then to Cairns, and there he now lay, head to head with Engelhardt.
It is possible that both vegetarians felt each other’s presence without being aware of it, as if the thin plywood panel between their heads were a kind of electrical conductor. Halsey was of course a genius, as was Engelhardt. It’s just often the case that one person’s genius is acknowledged in the world—his idea spreads and evolves like a well-told joke that isn’t forgotten, like the virus of some disease—while the other’s withers away under the saddest of circumstances. The Kellogg brothers, who had sent Halsey to the other end of the world, were convinced that their pupil’s lines of thought to a certain degree must seem too radical for their time, but they were also undoubtedly in love with him, in an avuncular sense. Still, they didn’t want him on the same continent because he had criticized their foundations, had nibbled away at their morals, so to speak.
At any rate, on the following day the two sat at the same table in the breakfast room of the little boardinghouse, the windows of which looked out on a slightly sloping dusty street so that the sporadically recurring rain showers transformed it mostly into a muddy torrent. Frangipani blossoms would then come floating down the street, coming to rest before the boardinghouse, as they did today, for it was raining fiercely, and Engelhardt was brewing for himself with some care a cup of brown loam so as to spend the day reading in the boardinghouse and then to prepare for his well-earned departure from Australia.
Halsey addressed him with interest, asking what sort of extract Engelhardt was mixing, and was informed that it was medicinal clay; if one couldn’t get hold of the original product from Germany, one could use any soil, it contained all of the minerals the body needed, for his visits to so-called civilization would suck those substances out of Engelhardt, and this was the only way he could stay healthy. But didn’t Engelhardt live in civilization, Halsey wanted to know, whereupon the former replied with a dose of nonchalant pride that he was the leader and creator of the Order of the Sun and ran a coconut plantation in the German colonies north of Australia, so it depended on the definition of the word civilization. A truer word was never spoken, Halsey said and requested permission to taste the medicinal clay. He was a strict vegetarian, he explained, and was always happy to try something new that didn’t harm an animal in its production.
Halsey’s idea, which he was now explaining to Engelhardt over a cup of the brown dust, was to develop a food paste that one could use as a healthy spread for bread—with a purely vegetable base, naturally—so as to cure young and old of the desire for meat through the flavor of the paste. The trick would be to blend this spread in such a way that the flavor would actually make one think one was in fact enjoying Liebig’s popular Extract of Meat smeared on one’s breakfast toast.
Cooked, preserved in a jar, and consisting of malt and yeast, the new foodstuff would be delectable and full of vitamins and create—and this was the actual idea (since, according to Halsey, behind every good world-altering thought there must be another hidden thought)—a new type of person: a healthy, powerful vegetarian who did not have to answer for the blatant injustice of suffering animals. In short, Halsey wanted to reform his fellow man by outfoxing his palate. The dark-brown yeast substance was to simmer in large vats in specially built factories the world over (for one would have to produce the paste in huge quantities), so he saw it in his mind’s eye. On the one hand, Engelhardt was touched by Halsey’s generous trust, though they had known each other for only about ten minutes (let’s not count the night in which both, without knowing of each other, slept head to head and, so to speak, emanated into each other in their dreams). It was a proselytizing, vegetarian idea that this young Adventist was voicing, not dissimilar from Engelhardt’s own conceptions.
But now he had been brooding for weeks about a suitable name and could not settle on one. He had here, if you please, a piece of paper with several options, most of them crossed out. Did Engelhardt perhaps have a revelatory idea? It should sound as healthful as possible, and with a harmonious succession of consonants and vowels. Please, Halsey said, could he not donate a name to his cause? Engelhardt urged the young American, quid pro quo, to travel with him to New Pomerania and try subsisting exclusively on coconuts for three months. During this time, he would then have the opportunity to give further thought to this spreadable condiment, its production (couldn’t one perhaps also cook it from a copra paste?), as well as its marketing. On Kabakon they would arrive at a fitting name for this new product. Oh, yes, indeed, they would be naked together the whole time.
Halsey, to cut a long story short, refused everything, disconcerted and rather perturbed. He was sorry, but his vegetarianism had grown out of a quite puritanical tradition and would result in a pragmatic realism oriented, above all, toward capitalism. One’s own body was not essential to his philosophy. Sure, it existed, but that was no reason to lie naked on a beach; surely no one could be persuaded by that. His counterpart seemed to him to be, if he might be permitted to say so, like all romantics, merely an egoist of a Schopenhauerian persuasion.
Engelhardt sat facing him very quietly for a spell while shredding up into tinier and tinier shreds Halsey’s piece of paper with possible names on it and then in turn (for it is common knowledge that no people tear each other apart as exhaustively as those whose ideas are identical) began to reproach the poor Yankee. He was a Calvinist bore, and really, who was supposed to spread spiced paste on bread, he, Halsey, would see where he ended up—in the poorhouse; he’d fail with his phantasmagoria, which was basically premised only on exploitation, because he wanted to manufacture industrially and not discover what nature harmoniously offered him.
I see, I see, aha, communist, idiot, Halsey blurted out, rising angrily, taking his hat from the table, and hurrying to the door. Traitor to our sacred vegetarian cause, Engelhardt called after him, and: prudish, prematurely senile Philistine! This last, however, Halsey did not hear as he had long since disappeared into the crowd on the main road of Cairns, which was colored slate-gray by the rain, surfacing once or twice on one street corner or another until nothing more was left of him but the shredded paper with the ten or twelve potential names for the spread, which Engelhardt had tossed under the table, and which that evening—our hero having already departed—was swept up by the boardinghouse proprietor and tossed into the kitchen oven together with the package of medicinal clay Engelhardt had intentionally forgotten in his room. From now on, our friend swore to himself, he would live off coconuts exclusively. And those slips of paper that resembled black roses at the moment they went up in flames, their florescent edges gleaming whitish yellow? Vegetarians Delite could be read on those snippets, then a few names crossed out, among them Veggie’s Might, Yeastie, and Beast-Free and then, clear and distinct, underlined twice and marked with angular exclamation points, the word Vegemite.
Christian Kracht is a Swiss novelist, whose books have been translated into twenty-seven languages. His previous novels include Faserland, 1979, and I Will Be Here in Sunshine and in Shadow. Imperium was the recipient of the 2012 Wilhelm Raabe literature prize.
Daniel Bowles is a visiting assistant professor of German studies at Boston College. His previous translations include novels by Thomas Meinecke and short texts by Alexander Kluge and Rainald Goetz.