Europe’s Essence

"The Capital" by Robert Menasse

Robert Menasse’s award-winning The Capital is a dark but affectionate satire on the European idea.

Robert Menasse has long been preoccupied with the implications of historical crisis for social cohesion. A provocative yet eloquent critic of the Austrian political and socio-cultural scene, his novels are both polemical and progressive, solidly constructed and peopled by empathically drawn characters.

More recently, he has turned to the question of Europe’s future. In his 2012 essay Enraged Citizens, he confronted Eurosceptics and in 2017, he addressed the European Parliament, feting the EU’s infamous bureaucracy as the most successful emanation of the once visionary spirit of Europe.

Shortly thereafter, he published The Capital, one of the first serious literary portrayals of the European Commission. Set almost entirely in Brussels, it’s perhaps a cross between Jonathan Franzen and The West Wing, or an epic by Goethe set among the chamberlains of Weimar. The premise seems unlikely, but the result is a tragicomic page-turner.

The Capital features a lively cast of characters, all seeking to get a handle on Europe’s future in various ways – and often not even coming close. The novel is densely populated, but Menasse gives each of its numerous figures a distinctive identity. The narrative thrives on the interplay between individual tragedies and the historical and political whole they are bound to.

Fenia Xenopoulou, a Greek Cypriot with big ambitions, wages war on irrelevance: Recently “promoted” to the position of director of communications for culture by the General Directorate, she launches a big “Jubilee Project” for the European Commission’s 50th anniversary, hoping that will pep up the EU brand while enhancing her prospects. She enlists Martin Susman, the melancholy son of an Austrian pig-farming dynasty, whose brother is often in town lobbying for Europe’s swine breeders. The hapless brothers are joined by a third Austrian, the retired economics professor Alois Erhart, who works for an “advisory group” on visions for a new Europe.

Robert Menasse The Capital
©Wikicommons Xavier Häpe


Many of the characters are directly burdened by the darker legacies of Europe: David de Vriend, a retired Belgian teacher, is a Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family in the Nazi genocide; Mateusz a.k.a. Ryszard Oswiecki, the grandson of Polish Resistance fighters and a former candidate for the priesthood, is now a hired assassin working for the Vatican; and Émile Brunfaut, a police superintendent called in to investigate a murder and then suddenly called off, is also a grandson of the Resistance, this time Belgian. Haunted by fears for his own health and battling the mysterious closure of the murder case, Brunfaut pursues his investigations into the heart of NATO Headquarters.

The Capital deftly combines detective novel and political thriller, cultural history and psychological portrait, epic sweep and love story. Never losing sight of humanity’s mortal horizon, its reflections on death and memory are on the whole sure-footed. Menasse’s own literary range is evident everywhere, as is his mordant humor: Director Xenopoulou’s big Jubilee Project is an unmistakable echo of the patriotic Parallel Campaign in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, and it unfolds in a comparably absurd fashion. Martin Susman, charged with realizing the project, fixes on the motto “Never Again” and devises a commemoration featuring Holocaust survivors. Professor Erhart, meanwhile, himself the son of dyedin- the-wool Nazis, campaigns for a relocation of Europe’s capital to Oświęcim, also known as Auschwitz. Both suggestions are, of course, immediately trashed; but the point is to touch Europe’s most painful historical nerve, and to do so with style.

The novel presents the EU as a mosaic of conflicting interests that share very little besides empty rhetoric. Threading through the cacophony is the irresistible leitmotif of a stray pig that surfaces at various points: agribusiness and bureaucracy are made flesh, finally running amok in the cemetery. One could quibble with the all-too-missionary tone of the final pages, where Menasse rehashes his European idea, familiar from his essays. But the colorful cast and the rich range of allusion and wordplay make for a deeply satisfying read. On wordplay: Menasse cannot resist corrupting the Tyrolean village of Alpbach, home of the annual European Forum, to ‘Alpach’ – ‘Alp, ach!,’ o, nightmare!

Help us help you

“Strong media and independent journalism are built on the shoulders of subscribers. Your support means the world to us.

Benjamin Wolf
COO & Managing Editor

The coronavirus outbreak affects and challenges your life in big and small ways. Metropole is here for you and we are proud to be your news source during this crisis.

But just as the coronavirus has increased the need for independent journalism, it has also undercut a major revenue source of media companies, ours included – advertising.

We need your support to keep it up – donate or subscribe and #helpushelpyou!

Support Metropole!


RECENT Articles

The Coronavirus in Austria & Vienna | Austrian Airlines to Fly Again Starti...

Austria has successfully flattened the curve, for now. Here’s all you need to know about current measures, including available resources, trusted sources and tips – regularly updated.

Pleased to Meet You | Carefully

Why we (still) need to practice social distancing, now that we can finally get together with friends and family again.

US Quietly Funds the IAEA in Fight Against COVID-19

As Donald Trump Slams the World Health Organization, the State Department is giving millions to another uN agency to battle the pandemic.

New Leadership for Austria’s Cultural Reopening

Having faced growing criticism from all sides, State Secretary for Cultural Affairs Ulrike Lunacek resigned May 15.

7 Restaurants to Have Iftar This Ramadan

Today marks the beginning of Eid al-Fitr or Festival of Breaking the Fast, concluding a month of fasting for Muslims keeping the Ramadan. We’ve compiled a list of sweet spots in the city for you to celebrate the Sugar Feast.

After Ibiza | Older, But None the Wiser

A year ago the infamous video was released: it showed the then Vice-Chancellor H-C Strache promising lucrative state contracts for other favors. What was at first a political embarrassment has now sparked a broader corruption investigation.


Join over 5,000 Metropolitans, who already get monthly news updates and event invitations.