By Christian Kracht
179 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $23.
You want a bizarre read? This one is positively coco-loco!
This is based on the true story of a German man, August Engelhardt, who at the beginning of the 20th century makes for the South Seas and then-German New Guinea. He buys an island — buyer and seller neglected to tell the natives already living there — in order to create a sort of utopia dedicated to the worship of the coconut.
Yes, the coconut.
Cue that scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where two knights are “riding” through the countryside and one is banging the shells of a coconut together to simulate the sound of a horse’s hooves against the earth.
Yes, this is pretty much what you would get if you stretched that scene to novel-length and sprinkled in a bit of leprosy and a lot of malnourishment.
August, you see, is a “cocovore.” He eats only coconuts, nothing else, believing that their high proximity, up in the trees, made them something of a “godly” fruit.
The surrounding facts of August’s coco-obsession are a bit murky, so author Christian Kracht has filled in the blanks. Is the resulting novel more outlandish than the real-life events? Who can say.
There were moments in the first forty or so pages that I considered giving up on this one. The way this is written is, what can one say, unique.
The opening paragraph provides you with some idea of what you’re in for:
“Beneath the long white clouds, beneath the resplendent sun, beneath the pale firmament could be heard, first, a prolonged tooting; then the ship’s bell emphatically sounded the midday hour, and a Malaysian boy strode, gentle-footed and quiet, the length of the upper deck so as to wake with a circumspect squeeze of the shoulder those passengers who had drifted off to sleep again after their lavish breakfast.”
Yes, they’re all like that, so it takes you a while to settle in. I read the first thirty pages, put this one aside for a week or so, picked it up again, realized I didn’t really remember much on the pages I’d read, went over them again, realized I still didn’t quite remember what I’d just read — despite having just read it — but proceeded anyway.
As I said, it takes a while to settle in, for your mind to get on the same wavelength as the sentence structure. If you can’t get with the rhythm, it’s very difficult to hear the words.
The first part, i.e. the first 70 pages or so, are mostly set-up. I wouldn’t call these pages boring exactly, but they aren’t especially interesting. More like an experiment in endurance.
In the second part, the subsequent 50 or so pages, things seem to get going a bit, and in the third part, the remaining 50 pages, this actually gets pretty good. Unfortunately, I doubt many readers will have done the work to get that far.
In some ways, this reminds me of an Umberto Eco novel. The Island of the Day Before in particular. Which is to say, “Imperium,” like most any Eco novel, features some rather challenging language obscuring what it is a pretty compelling story. You have to work a bit for this, in other words. It’s more stick than carrot, but suffering the stick makes the carrot (or perhaps, the coconut?) all the sweeter when you get to it in the third act.
I don’t exaggerate, the third act really is quite good. It’s just a shame that the whole book couldn’t have been as good, really.
What I particularly liked about “Imperium,” though, is that I haven’t ever read anything like it before. Yes, it’s part “The Island of the Day Before,” but also part “Robinson Crusoe,” and “Heart of Darkness.”
I liked it, I didn’t love it, but I won’t soon forget it.