Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas

Written by Christian Kracht
Review by Janice Derr

In the early 20th century, August Engelhardt leaves Germany aboard a ship headed to a colonial island in the South Pacific. During the voyage, the philosopher and ardent vegetarian draws bemused curiosity from fellow travelers as he subsists on fruit and a dirt pudding mixture, and lounges on the ship’s deck, fantasizing about the utopian nudist community he hopes to create. Upon disembarking from the ship, he buys a small island inhabited by natives and establishes a coconut plantation. The coconut soon becomes the center of his universe, as he views it as the most godlike and spiritual of all foods. Eventually he becomes a cocoivore, surviving entirely on coconuts.

Engelhardt’s dream of an idyllic, nudist, sun-worshipping, cocoivore community is never fully realized. Followers do arrive on the island, enticed by the treatises Engelhardt sends back to Germany, but the followers never exhibit the same fervor or values as their leader and are eventually sent away from the island. Malnourished, suffering from leprosy, and alone except for an island boy who befriends him, Engelhardt loses his grip on reality and becomes more and more deranged.

The fictional August Engelhardt is based on a real man who tried to establish a utopian community. Kracht blends fact and fiction until the lines completely blur. The reader is left unsure which characters and events were real and which are part of Kracht’s bizarre island world. A dark little novel, smart and infused with dry humor.