LIFE, FOR THE CYNICALLY — or realistically — inclined, begins with death. The end is in the beginning, as Beckett once put it. The newborn cry ripples out, only to echo faintly in the last whisper of the agonal breath; and yet, as Beckett’s line continues, you go on.
Of Christian Kracht’s five novels, the mere second to be translated into English is The Dead. It begins with a killing: “A handsome young officer” in a 1930s Tokyo “intended to punish himself in the living room of an altogether nondescript house in the western part of the city.” This first taking of life in a novel with a spate of corpses is an act of seppuku, the ritualistic honor-killing of the shamed, battered self. But perhaps, as the moral highflier Dr. Tamkin tells Saul Bellow’s Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, “all suicide is murder, and all murder is suicide.”
Suicide used to be a private affair, executed in a bathtub when the folks were out, performed in a hotel room in a town with potent pills and low-cost liquor. But modernity has turned so much of the private into a public performance: with trains came the glimpse of the last pair of eyes in the conductor’s horror-stricken face; skyscrapers brought the idea of ascension to the heavens by falling flights down to the street and its onlookers; and with all hangings come the shock of the discoverer.
Kracht’s novel, first published in German in 2016 and elegantly translated by Daniel Bowles, is set in the inter-bellum lull before hyper-modernity proved its dominance through the full-blown, state-of-the-art berserkdom of World War II, the Shoah, Little Boy and Fat Man. Long before the mushroom clouds sprouted over Japan, Kracht’s story focuses on the same turf, and while the ritualistic seppuku initially tethers the novel to ancient Japanese tradition, Kracht’s opening gambit is to have us observe this suicide through the observer’s modern lens.
The lens of the camera was inserted into a corresponding aperture in the wall of the adjoining room, the hole’s edges insulated with strips of fabric so that the humming of the apparatus might not disturb the delicate scene within.
Who sees this, who are the observers — apart from us readers — who are “they,” who so swiftly develop the film after the young officer’s death and take “pains to deliver the print punctiliously and on time”? Was this death so voluntary, after all? Or was Dr. Tamkin on the right track? Does the mere gaze of another turn every suicide, in the blink of an eye, into a murder? What could be more private than a suicide? And what violence to have you witness it, to confront you instantaneously not only with my death, but also with yours.
These coordinates have been mapped before in the wake of a similar act of seppuku memorably carried out by the Japanese writer, actor, and nationalist Yukio Mishima (who appears in Kracht’s novel). His 1961 short story “Patriotism” — and his own 1966 short film adaptation of the story — ends with the seppuku of a young officer, who is first witnessed, then joined in death by his young wife. With this material Mishima foreshadowed his death, as if his life were but a fiction. In the short film of the same name, which Mishima himself directed, it is he, Mishima, who also plays the officer suiciding on film, or acting to do so. To Mishima, it seems, this was but a rehearsal on celluloid. Four years later, in 1970, he took the tantō sword to his own entrails after a failed coup d’état had left him derided and disgraced.
In Mishima’s short film Patriotism, he had shown himself as one of the dead avant la lettre, turning his subsequent private suicide into a mere echo of truth long established publicly on celluloid. And while our end may be in our beginning — we are all, of course, the dead of the future — Mishima seems to have uniquely documented his future death, and his fictional film today appears as a ghostly record of his unseen demise, an eerily evidential act of fictional testimony.
In Kracht’s novel, we learn that the little reel of silent snuff is to be shipped post-haste to the UFA film studios in Germany — “that great nation of cinema” — by the ministry official Masahiko Amakasu, who hopes to convince the UFA money men and the nation’s leading media dragoman and Nazi enabler Alfred Hugenberg to “establish a celluloid axis between Tokyo and Berlin.”
Sharply montaged, the book alternates between Japan, Germany, Switzerland, and finally Los Angeles; as well as between Masahiko Amakasu and the “film director Emil Nägeli, from Bern,” who is in a creative funk after his directorial effort Die Windmühle has been lauded by critics, but has left him baffled on how to use his next reels of film. He is also still stunned from the death of Nägeli père the previous year. The Nazis, dealers in death, ever quick to capitalize on weakness, invite Nägeli to Berlin to discuss future projects. Nägeli is skeptical as he travels from “Zürich to the new Berlin, the spleen of that insecure, uptight, unstable nation of Germans.”
Hugenberg hopes to beguile Nägeli with champagne and cabaret, and to provide for Nägeli’s next film “two hundred thousand dollars” and complete creative freedom, provided it’s a Japanese-German propaganda stunt. Hugenberg, ever “flanked by two or three slick and sluggish goons,” believes that “the globe must be overrun with German films, colonized with celluloid. After all, film is nothing but celluloid nitrate, gunpowder for the eyes.” The Swiss neutral Nägeli watches this insane display of power and concludes: “never before has he so vividly been served up the madness and megalomania of the Germans.”
As it happens, however, Nägeli will travel to Japan and make a film there, but his own film, a very different one from what Hugenberg expected.
Tightly cutting between the short chapters of his novel, Kracht elegantly merges the lives of Nägeli and Masahiko, freely moving from present to past, and ultimately colliding their existences as they revolve around the sun of their mutual love, Ida. As Nägeli travels to Japan, he dreams of his sun-freckled fiancée Ida. She awaits him in Japan, where she has already gotten to know Amakasu, in the biblical sense of course.
The three spend a significant amount of time together in Japan, Nägeli long ignorant of Masahiko and Ida’s union, but the day they “drive out together in a convertible,” Nägeli’s Bolex camera captures the truth of their affair. Nägeli keeps his knowledge private, and the following day he climbs, Bolex in hand, into the “bowels” of Masahiko’s house, penetrating the dwelling like a tantō sword, murdering through cinematic dissection, as he peeps into the bedroom to find Masahiko and Ida being, once again, biblical together. He has lost a fiancée, but he has captured a film.
Shrewdly and subtly, Kracht links this moment in the “bowels” of the house near the end of the novel with the disemboweling of the officer at the book’s beginning; by implication, he links suicide and sex, the way Mishima had advocated throughout his writings.
Across the novel Kracht leaves clues and tracks (perhaps traps) for the readers to connect (or tumble into), eschewing certainty through deliciously stimulating ambiguity in a remarkable, elegiac, sensual, often grotesque and hilarious novel. Above all, Kracht, like Joyce in his short story that bears the same title as this novel, thankfully never explains who the dead are: the ghosts that haunt the living, the characters captured and forever frozen on celluloid, or the many historical figures who populate the book, from Fritz Lang and Yukio Mishima to Lotte Eisner and Charlie Chaplin, all of whom are by now quite dead but also have been metaphorically killed, destroyed by fiction.
The Dead is the most recent novel by the Swiss-born resident of Los Angeles; in 2016, it won the Hermann Hesse literature prize and the Swiss Book Prize, has been adapted for the stage, and has been one of the most discussed books in the German-language media landscape at the time of publication. This wasn’t without precedent: in one of the more dissolute moments in the eminent history of German literary criticism, a clutch of critics attempted a character assassination following the publication of Kracht’s Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas (2012), when the idiotic insinuation was put forward that the colonialist and antisemitic views of some of Kracht’s characters were the author’s own. What happened? Had French theory been assailed as it tried to cross the Rhine into Germany?
Though much milder in tone, The Dead also prompted many of Kracht’s reviewers in the Teutonic regions to fall prey to the most elementary and naïve of grade-school misreadings. This book, too, was but a shadow of Kracht’s autobiography; they proclaimed, his characters were mere mouthpieces for his personal opinions (notwithstanding that a book is a dialogue of voices in conflict), and, discovery of Archimedean discoveries, Emil Nägeli even has the same hair style as his author!
While hairstyles can change, some critics did not and were still stuck with their habitual naïveté, when in May of this year Christian Kracht gave the Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics at the Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. The oldest institution of its kind, the lecture series put Kracht in line with a crowd of distinguished elective affinities such as Christa Wolf, Günter Grass, Wolfgang Hilbig, and the inaugural writer in the winter term of 1959/1960, Ingeborg Bachmann. As at a Bob Dylan concert, video or audio recording and flash photography was prohibited at the author’s request. In this smartphone-free Shangri-La, Kracht mined traditional themes of this lecture series, a self-reflexive focus on one’s oeuvre, the motivations as well as the philosophical and poetical backgrounds of one’s writings. But Kracht also turned his gaze on an overlooked moment in his youth: when he was a teenager at the Canadian day and boarding school Lakefield College in Ontario, Kracht was sexually abused by the priest Keith Gleed, who died in 2001. Kracht described how the Anglican ordered the 12-year-old into his home, forced him to strip and endure a spanking from the priest, while the churchman masturbated behind him.
Kracht reported how he only understood that what happened to him was not just in his imagination after having read of the revelations about Gleed’s systematic pedophilia and the school’s slow-going reconciliation in the last 10 years.
The initial discovery of Gleed’s crimes reads like a scene from one of Kracht’s novels: when the one-time alumnus Prince Andrew came to the school in 2008 to gift Lakefield with a baptismal font in honor of the late Gleed, five former pupils went public to reveal the truth about the criminal cleric. Two lawsuits against Lakefield are pending; the memorial font has been removed; the Royal family kept a stiff upper lip and declined to comment on the matter.
Kracht argued that this discovery prompted him to reread his oeuvre, and in his lectures he distinctly drew parallels between this moment in his life and scenes from his novels and other writings. In fact, a scene similar to the sexual abuse by Gleed appears in the as yet untranslated alternate-history-dystopia Ich werde hier sein im Sonnenschein und im Schatten (I’ll be Here in Sunshine and in Shadow, 2008). This was proof enough for the more empirically minded critics of Kracht’s works: his interests in suppressive individuals and institutions, be it Iran on the eve of the Islamic Revolution in his second novel, 1979 (2001); the rape of an indigenous boy by an adult German man in Imperium; the grim details of Masahiko Amakasu’s boarding school experience in The Dead; or Kracht’s general fascination for authority and autocracy, and his brilliant use of hilarity and high pathos to relieve discomfort — mere autobiography, all.
With relief, some critics in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria identified a revelation and a triumph, stating that Kracht’s confession once and for all lay open his fiction’s impetus. One critic even went so far as to announce a schism in Kracht’s oeuvre, a time before his lectures and a time after. Unfortunately, the broader interests of Kracht’s lectures were nearly overshadowed by merely one painfully poignant aspect of them, while he also spoke of his wide-reaching influences and interpreted his decision to leave the German-speaking parts of Europe for the United States as an attempt to be away from the language of Adolf Eichmann, as well as a desire to experience the music of the German language as filtered to his ears across the distance.
The critics who feel the need to see Kracht as an unequivocally autobiographical writer are victim to intellectual enfeeblement. First, the visions of violence and suppression are all over Kracht’s work, and those who only follow the breadcrumbs now, seem to have long been blind, seem to have had, as the German idiom goes, tomatoes on their eyes. Second, those critics miss the difference between a writer’s necessarily idiosyncratic ideas of what constitutes the private as opposed to the public, and that once a writer’s life becomes public it demands a different approach, perhaps not dissimilar to the one used for his or her fiction.
The second Kracht’s life became a text that was read from the lectern, it demanded to be treated as such. A text brought into play with all of his others, the way throughout his oeuvre he has created a texture of self-reference and literary allusion — in The Dead, most directly vis-à-vis Mishima’s work and life.
Approaches read solely for the author’s autobiography, scurrying to find factual proof of Kracht’s abuse across his fiction — not only in light of the #MeToo achievements — are morally suspect, keeping the victim of a felony forever in the clutches of a sinister clergyman. Just as important, such readings are critically embarrassing, reducing the author of finely wrought fictions to a mere machine of reflexes, and the institution of criticism to mere detective work. Yes, Kracht’s writings are autobiographical, as are every other novelist’s. But while to a novelist all writing may be autobiographical, to a novelist his or her life is also a fiction. Kracht’s most explicit move inward is not a disembowelment, not an ending but a beginning, a triumph not because of what the critics may finally behold, but because of what the author might fictionalize from deep within himself. It is there, after all, where an artist must go.