Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Kracht and Diez and Woodard

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. 

5 comments:

David said...

What if Diez is wrong?

Or what if he's right, but Kracht is still a brilliant writer, as others have suggested?

I've ordered the book to find out for myself!

kjd said...

Good for you, David. I know you've been following Woodard's activities for a while too, so I'd be very interested in what you think of the book.

sally said...

Great summary, thanks! I can't comment on the Spiegel piece (how annoying that it isn't available online) or Kracht's personal political views and his connection to Woodward (this part, if Diez is right, sounds disturbing), but I have read "Imperium", and it seems strange to me that Diez would think that comparing Hitler to a leprous, fanatical cocoivore who eats his own thumb is/could be intended as an advert for right wing ideas (!). I see Jelinek, Kehlmann and others have signed an open letter claiming that Diez attributes statements by fictional characters to the author: http://www.boersenblatt.net/513014/
How does this relate to the Spiegel piece, do you think?
In any case, with regard to "Imperium", I don't follow Diez's logic, as the protagonist is clearly an anti-hero: a fanatic, very probably a murderer, and the founder of a sect whose members expire from malnutrition and disease. It's also worth bearing in mind that the end of the novel casts doubt on the narration and undercuts any possible hero-making that might take place through the telling of Engeldhardt's story. In my view, it would be fair to criticize the novel for stereotyped portrayals of some of the non-European characters, but this doesn't seem to be Diez's point.
Is it possible that all this is a publicity stunt?

kjd said...

Hi Sally,

First of all, no, I don't think it's a publicity stunt. Georg Diez is quite serious about the matter and obviously troubled by Kracht's stance. And I'm convinced he is right about David Woodard.

But literary criticism is not an exact science. Where one critic sees the novel as a persiflage of modern eating habits, another defines it as an ironic reckoning with German Romanticism. Diez sees it as sneaking racist ideas in by the back door.

On the subject of that open letter, yes, I can see their point about the difficulties of equating the narrator's or characters' voices with that of the author. (I also note that many of the signatories are represented by the same agent as Kracht.) Yet I don't agree that Diez is starting a dangerous trend by making his accusations. By the very same argument they use, he has every right to express his concerns, because surely criticism should be as unfettered by fear of censorship as literature itself. And when authors call for a critic to be gagged, that too is cause for concern.

What I think is this: Diez has raised serious issues but was perhaps unwise to place the weight of his argument on the novel. All the critical reactions to Diez's piece that I have read have dealt solely with the novel and not with the Woodard aspect. Even Kracht's publisher Helge Malchow, in his response in this week's Spiegel (not online!) devotes only a single paragraph to the subject. His comment on the email correspondence:

"A critical examination of the book is legitimate (although the editors refer to the volume "Five Years" by Christian Kracht and David Woodard in the foreword as literature, which ought to be borne in mind), if Georg Diez had not dissected out of the disparate, sometimes provocative, sometimes severe statements (including on those testing the boundaries of culture such as William S. Burroughs, Kenneth Anger and Christoph Schlingensief), in order to then subsume this over the novel as a steel interpretation mould and thus distort the novel into a piece of propaganda writing."

He finishes with a coy accusation of McCarthyism. I don't agree. Just as we interpret older literature with relation to what we think we know about the writers and their times and their personal beliefs, we can do so today.

A comparison might be Martin Mosebach, a vocal Catholic, whose literary work is often viewed under that aspect. By publishing his correspondence with Woodard, a man who "denies being a white supremacist" (San Francisco Chronicle), Kracht put his views into the public arena and under public scrutiny.

The young author Antonia Baum writes in yesterday's FAZ (not online!) about semi-ironic flirtations with fascism, perhaps comparable to punk's use of the swastika (although the comparison she gives of art students wearing Fred Perry shirts is misunderstood, to my mind). This is something to bear in mind, perhaps - that arrogant stance of being above moral categories and the wish to provoke a reaction. Now Kracht has got his reaction. As far as I'm aware he has not responded, instead cancelling his launch reading in Berlin.

sally said...

Morning! Thank you for such a rigorous follow-up. I am looking forward to reading the various articles when they finally make their way over to this side of the world. Based on your explanation, though, I would agree that Diez was unwise to draw on the novel for his critique. I don't think it helps him make his argument and it has evidently given rise to debates about wider issues -- the freedom of the writer, the role of the reviewer, art vs life etc -- thereby distracting attention away from the question of Kracht's politics. I've just read the taz article, which is available online - http://www.taz.de/!87458/ (hooray!) - and I can follow the logic of Andreas Fanizadeh's criticisms, unlike the Hitler-glorification-through-comparison-with-fanatical-leper argument that Diez seems to make. But now I'm back to discussing the novel again, damn it!
Anyway, thank you very much for going through all the ins and outs of this one.