LEFT FIELD: The Dead by Christian Kracht

Review published on August 10, 2018.

The Dead is a dark historical thriller, an allegorical tale, a gothic horror and a literary novel, very hard to actually classify, which is a measure of its originality. Kracht conveys as much between the lines as he does with the words on the page. Sometimes it feels like nothing much is happening, it’s beautifully descriptive, the meandering is beguiling, but little by little meaning emerges. The novel is also brutally realist, there are sudden outbursts of violence which confirm this is noir, it’s 1932 and the events here presage the rise of fascism and the coming war. Scenes appear disparate and only loosely connected, at times Kracht challenges the reader to piece together the jigsaw of ideas, but there is a profound statement here about humanity. The Dead is a beautiful, grotesque story of perverse ideology and it’s effect on the individual, of the corruption of love and human feelings and of the weak crushed and remoulded in a darker form. Read this novel and it will stay with you for a long time.

Fans of Kracht’s earlier novel Imperium, a bestseller in Europe, will be surprised by the dramatic change in tone and style of The Dead. Imperium is the tale of August Engelhardt, a vegan and nudist. He established a cult on one of the German South Pacific colonial possessions early in the twentieth century. Doomed from the start, the coconut-eating idyll fell apart under the weight of child abuse and internecine fighting. Critics have noted that the tale was analogous to the empire of another vegetarian megalomaniac – Hitler. Imperium was a rollicking, funny novel, The Dead is not. It is, however, comparable to Imperium in the creation of a microcosm as a reflection on the wider world situation. This is the story of the collaboration between UFA, the German film studio, and the Japanese Government to make a film with European sensibilities in Japan, a seductive propaganda. This microcosm is an allegory of the rise of fascism in Europe. The lesser known historical events portrayed in The Dead hint at the coming turmoil. Kracht gives us a glimpse of the mindset and the growth of a poisonous ideology. Events that have implications not just in Europe but also America, where the denouement occurs, finally making sense of a death-bed whisper by Nageli, the director at the heart of the story. Kracht presents a vision of fascist corruption and brutality, it’s vanity and it’s ache for a non-existent long past idyll.

The novel opens in a downpour in Tokyo, with a brutal death. The ritual suicide of a young Japanese officer for an unnamed minor transgression. It a stark cinematic scene, I use that term advisedly, because Kracht presents it to us, and many other passages and chapters, in a highly visual format, reminiscent of film clips or movie stills. This Seppuku is being filmed; the plunging of the tantō into the torso, the blade being drawn across the gut, the blood, the pain etched on the face of the victim. The film is developed and delivered to the Foreign Ministry where Masahiko Amakasu is transfixed by it. He can archive it, destroy it or send it to the Germans:

“The sufferings of the officer in the film was simultaneously beatific and unbearable, a transfiguration of horror into something loftier, something divine — the Germans would understand this well in their pristine longing for death.”

He sends it, Amakasu is a fan of the European cinema, particularly the stillness of German films (also their technical ability – Agfa film, Carl Zeiss lens). Their films portray “the sacred and ineffable, within this very uneventfulness.” Japan must combat American imperialism in the Showa empire. He sends a letter to UFA director, Hugenberg, requesting a director. UFA send Swiss director Emil Nageli. Nageli is looking forward to the trip as his girlfriend, Ida von Üxküll, is already in Japan. The Germans have their own reasons for sending Nageli and providing him with an outrageous budget for his film. The Germans are also dreaming of a deal with the Americans and Hollywood. Nageli is initially beguiled by Japan:

“Tokyo is an electrifying polyphony of modernity and at the same time very, very ancient, a city that seems perfectly free of the taint of vulgarity.”

The mood is soon soured as the gothic awakens.

The novel weaves it’s magic around real events and people. Ida winds up in Hollywood and the movie she makes stars Wallace Beery, not so familiar now but one of the legends of the early silver screen. The events in the novel take place when Charles Chaplin is also in Japan and he plays a role here. In real life he narrowly escaped assassination in a coup orchestrated by reactionary elements of the navy in which the prime minster was killed at a function Chaplin was supposed to attend. The grounding in real events gives the novel an authenticity. Kracht has a knowledge of the cinema of the age that is impressive. As an allegorical tale, or a microcosm of wider events this novel provides an understanding of the psychopathy of fascism. It’s a sad tale of human frailty and slavishness but a rewarding and powerful read.

Paul Burke 5/4

The Dead by Christian Kracht
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 9780374139674 hbk Aug 2018

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