Swiss writer Kracht’s bestselling, experimental 2012 novel—based on the life of a real person—gets translated into English.
Sick of civilization, August Engelhardt seeks a different kind of living. In the early 20th century, he purchases a coconut-rich Pacific island called Kabakon and, there, hopes to start a colony based on vegetarianism and the healing powers of the sun and coconuts. But Engelhardt is also a nudist, and this doesn’t appeal so much to certain people (“no reason to lie naked on a beach,” one potential partner tells him) and appeals a little too much to others. Nevertheless, Engelhardt—sometimes mad, sometimes misguided, sometimes prophetic—forms bonds with several of the island's natives and finds a bit of peace…until a famous musician named Lützow arrives and becomes an acolyte and, perhaps, a usurper, showing Engelhardt that not all attention is good. In this slim novel, Kracht uses the general outline of Engelhardt’s life to cram a lot into a small space; the omniscient narrator, in language both formal (“Now that we have endeavored to tell of our poor friend’s past”) and informal (“to cut a long story short”), tells not only Engelhardt’s story, but also the story of the birth of 20th-century science and demagoguery, touching on the world outside Engelhardt and including references to Einstein and Hitler. But what is one to make of this book ultimately? The language, florid and overstuffed with adverbs, harkens back to, and maybe parodies, an earlier style of writing, but to what end? The narrator jumps around in time, gets sidetracked, and sometimes seems barely interested in Engelhardt. “To wit: modernity had dawned; poets suddenly wrote fragmented lines,” Kracht writes. Does this account for the novel’s trapdoor style? Perhaps—and some of Kracht’s doors are more fun to fall into than others.
To quote Kracht: “quite literary but somewhat awkward.”