Category: Fiction

Jonas Lüscher
Kraft
[Kraft]

Novel

Autumn of the opportunists

Four years ago the Munich-based Swiss philosopher Jonas Lüscher landed a surprise hit with the novella „Frühling der Barbaren" [Spring of the Barbarians"]. The issues of our time, such as globalization, the financial crisis and the Arab spring were handled with a slightly surreal and singularly perceptive wit and written in a style that was not only sophisticated but also entertaining. It was hardly surprising that Lüscher’s newest book "Kraft", which was published in the spring, also attracted a great deal of attention in the German literature business, provoked debate, and garnered mostly rave reviews. The author, born in 1976, once again has managed to transform a politically explosive subject into a thrillingly ingenious and entertaining narrative. Here, too, we see the influence of Thomas Mann, yet his language always seems lucid and effortless.

The protagonist of the story, Richard Kraft, is a German intellectual in his mid-fifties, who has a successful career as professor in Tubingen’s department of rhetoric, a position the famed Walter Jens once held, yet his private life is a mess, because in the process of making a career, he neglected to develop human qualities such as empathy or the ability to have a relationship. Since he urgently needs cash to finance his second divorce, he participates in a science competition in Stanford, California that offers the winner a million dollar prize. The dotcom billionaire Tobias Erkner, who wants to develop "new models for society" on floating islands in the ocean, has offered the money for a modern answer to the age-old theodicy conundrum - albeit within the context of the world- and self-optimizing hubris of Silicon Valley: "If everything that exists is good, why is there still room for improvement?"

Richard Kraft is too arrogant to imagine he is not up to solving the task, and too intelligent not to see its absurdity. Trapped in this dilemma, and paralyzed by a writer’s block, he takes stock of his life and his career (and, incidentally, his failed affairs with women). At an early age, he sided with the Neoliberals for purely opportunistic reasons, thereby setting himself apart from the left wing movement and profiting from the generous support of the top conservative institutions.

Lüscher gives a pitch perfect description of the political milieu and atmosphere of the Federal Republic, prior to the fall of the wall, even though he was not old enough to have experienced it personally. On the other hand, he knows the Stanford campus firsthand. He had conducted research there for nine months, and was able to view the Silicon Valley scene up close along with their euphoria for technological advances. Both provide material for his satirical observations and keen analysis of the present day, which are a rarity in contemporary German literature.

Slowly but surely, Luscher allows the hero’s worldview to collapse under the weight of his self-deception and desire for prestige: Kraft, meaning strength in English, increasingly becomes a caricature of his own name, and in the process of admitting he has made mistakes, he also faces the bankruptcy of his personal and intellectual life.

The neoliberal ideology he had flirted with to set himself apart now has turned into a global mainstream, and the humanist elite of Europe, which he believes he is part of, no longer is capable of combating the rise of digital totalitarianism. The protagonist’s spirit is broken by this sad realization, albeit in a hilariously amusing fashion. The author, on the other hand, has turned it into one of the most powerful and clever German-language novels of the year.
Kristina Maidt-Zinke

By Kristina Maidt-Zinke, 01.03.2018

​Kristina Maidt-Zinke is a literary and music critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and writes reviews for Die Zeit.

Translated by Zaia Alexander