Literature – christian kracht: the mannerist with star status

The 2016 Swiss Book Prize goes to Christian Kracht for his latest novel, "The Dead". Opinions are divided on the Swiss writer and journalist.

Mixes verified history with fiction in his new novel: Christian Kracht

Christian Kracht mixes authentic history with fiction in his new novel.

Is he really good or is it just sparkling form? Christian Kracht divides opinions. This is also the case with his new book "Die Toten". At the end of BuchBasel, the cosmopolitan with Bernese roots was yesterday awarded the Swiss Book Prize, worth 30,000 Swiss francs. The jury chose the novel by the soon-to-be 50-year-old as the "best book" of the year.

No question: Kracht can tell stories. This is already evident in the opening scene of the book. In it, Kracht describes the ritual suicide of a Japanese officer. The author zooms in close, taking in the "brightly ground tip" of the traditional dagger, showing how it carves the "fine, white skin of the abdomen," whose bulge "a few black pubic hairs play around".

Then he switches to the "cherry-red" blood fountain that splashes onto an "infinitely delicately inked" picture scroll. The scene is actually viewed through the eye of a camera: eerie – and at the same time exaggerated by art.

Axis of Celluloid

Kracht’s novel "The Dead" is set in the 1930s on the eve of the Nazi takeover of power. In it, the author draws a parallel between the conquest of the world by emerging fascism and the conquest of the silver screen.

Japanese film enthusiasts want to create a bulwark against U.S. cultural imperialism. They reject the talkies and strive for an "axis of celluloid" between Tokyo and Berlin. The film reel with the recording of the ritual suicide reaches Germany.

Alfred Hugenberg, impresario of the German UFA film company and historically authenticated figure, talks money for a cinematic project, linked with unpleasant conditions. A Swiss director named Nageli comes into play, but fails privately and artistically in Japan.

Highly artificial novel

Kracht cultivates highly artificial, mannered language in his novel. The novel itself is also highly artificial. The author mixes authentic history with fiction and lets real characters appear, such as Hugenberg, film critics Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte Eisner, and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin.

The somber theme of fascism, brought into tension with the creation of meaning and support through cultural tradition, is another dazzling ingredient. Kracht bases the novel’s structure on the Japanese No Theater, whose actors "move across the stage like ghosts". The characters in the novel, which reads like a series of small, mostly silent film scenes, also remain ghostly.

The five-member jury of the book prize recognized in the novel "a successful combination of great literary skill with a clear-sighted diagnosis of our present." Christian Kracht has had star status since the publication of his 1995 debut. With every new book, he is always sure of a great murmur even before its publication.

His new novel, however, was not received quite so positively by the panel of critics in SRF’s last "Literaturclub" (Literature Club). Critic Philipp Tingler saw in it the manifestation of a new kind of literature similar to the art of a Damian Hirst: Virtuoso art that shows everything and at the same time leaves everything open. Art that becomes a shimmering surface and thus provides a blank space in terms of content that is open to any interpretation.

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