So now we have a nice fat literary scandal. Spiegel critic Georg Diez this week wrote about the Swiss novelist and travel writer Christian Kracht, about how his new novel Imperium "above all shows the author's vicinity to extreme right-wing ideas." The piece is not online. Then a heck of a lot of other critics reacted the next day, saying Diez had missed the irony, humour, subtlety, or whatever, and in one case suggesting Kracht attracts envy because of his wealthy background. Kracht's (and Diez's) publishers Kiepenheuer & Witsch issued a press release saying Diez had "perfidiously placed the author in the pillory" and pointing out that nobody else had found the book racist (so they obviously hadn't read the taz review then, in which Andreas Fanizadeh did in fact cautiously point out a few uncomfortable points). The publisher Helge Malchow says he's considering writing his own response in defence of Kracht in next week's Spiegel.
What exactly is going on here? First of all I have to point out I have read none of Kracht's work so I cannot judge whether Imperium does indeed harbour or promote or fail to distance itself from racist ideas. It's a highly fictionalised account of the early-twentieth-century German August Engelhardt, who moved to the colony of German-New Guinea to start a community of cocovores, radical vegetarians who existed on a diet of coconuts and inevitably got sick and died. As Diez points out, there was another, more prominent radical vegetarian in German history, to whom Kracht refers several times in the novel. In fact he also extends Engelhardt's life until after the end of WWII, Diez argues so as to enhance the parallels to Hitler. Of course, the setting of the novel means Kracht has to depict racist mindsets - and yet Diez for one is troubled by the intransparency of the narrator's standpoint. This writer, he says, has a fascination with dictatorships and evil but never quite reveals where he stands on the issue, while it occupies a growing place in his writing.
But it's on the last of the article's four pages that Diez cuts to the quick. Because here he turns to Kracht's friend David Woodard. The two of them last year published a compendium of their email correspondence, which was generally reviewed with bored shrugs. Perhaps the weight of all that communication dulled the reviewers' senses, because some of the quotes Diez obviously underlined at the time are hair-raising. The two of them admiringly bandy about names of right-wing populists and out-and-out Nazis and - this is the important bit - discuss the Paraguayan Aryan settlement Nueva Germania. You can read about Woodard's involvement in this community in a 2005 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can also see on this website that Woodard was working on a novel - I can only assume on the same subject - that was supposed to be published by Blumenbar Verlag in 2009. It was not. I'd be interested to find out why not.
Is it a coincidence that Kracht chose a very similar subject for Imperium? Certainly it reflects the two men's common fascination with German oddballs who set up colonies in far-flung places, only to fail. Of course Diez can't do much more than ask similar questions himself, the writing being extremely slippery. And that's one reason why I've never read Kracht's work. Incidentally, his non-fiction book The Ministry of Truth, depicting Kim Jong Il's North Korea, is available in English, published by Feral House, a US publisher with an apparent and perhaps fitting part-focus on occultism, serial killers, Nazism, "exposing Muslim fundamentalism" and dictatorships. Other authors they publish include Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. The disclaimer reads: "Feral House does not support or justify Kaczynski's crimes, nor does the
author receive royalties or compensation for this book. It is this
publisher’s mission, as well as a foundation of the First Amendment, to
allow the reader the ability to discern the value of any document."Many of the images on the publisher's website would be banned under German law.
My opinion on the whole mess? I'd like to congratulate Georg Diez for finally drawing attention to the issue. There's no denying that Christian Kracht works his fascination for what I'd call evil into his writing, through his choice of subject matter alone. Outside of his fiction, he clearly fails to distance himself from white-supremacist ideas, even publishing that failure as embodied in his correspondence with Woodard. Fiction, being fiction, doesn't have to do that. But I prefer it when it does. Whether Christian Kracht is indeed a modern-day equivalent to Ezra Pound and a "doorman for radical right-wing ideas", ushering them into the mainstream as Diez claims, is perhaps still open. Certainly, however, I don't think white supremacism is a laughing matter - and thus other critics' accusations of a lack of sense of humour on Diez's part ring rather hollow in my ears.