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.
CORRIDORS OF POWER
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!