The Capital review: Satire revealing higher and more urgent truths
In Robert Menasse’s novel, the EU is an unlovely form of bureaucracy that is an affair of the heart
European Union flags are seen waving in front of EU Commission Building in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Dursun Aydemir/Getty
Robert Menasse Translated by Jamie Bulloch
Jacques Delors, a former president of the European Commission, once famously quipped that you cannot fall in love with a Common Market. What’s good for business isn’t necessarily great for the emotions. Robert Menasse, one of Austria’s leading contemporary novelists, clearly does not agree. In The Capital he sets out to demonstrate that the common market in the unlovely form of EU bureaucracy is primarily an affair of the heart, albeit a heart whose beat is becoming increasingly erratic as the result of internal hubris and external disaffection.
The novel is structured around two main stories, a plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the European Commission and unsolved murder which is hushed up by higher authorities. Within this, the migrant crisis and terrorism act as narrative devices that bring contradictions to the fore and lives to an end. Menasse assembles his cast from the different member states – an ambitious Cyrpiot, a melancholy Austrian, a fanatical Pole, a patrician Italian, a wry Belgian – but he gives their inner lives a complexity that belies the satirical shorthand of simple labels.
In an arresting opening sequence, the different characters are shocked at the sight of a large pig careering through the streets of Brussels
He is brilliantly comic on the gladiatorial combats of careerist ambition and barely disguised national self-interest which engage the lives of Fenia Xenopolou, Kai-Uwe Frigge, George Morland and Romolo Strozzi in the Commission. The plan to have an event centred around concentration camp survivors as the focal point of the EU Commission anniversary is deftly sabotaged in an exquisite palace drama of bureaucratic treachery. Inspector Brunfaut is the Belgian local, the mildly disillusioned cop, who finds his betters generally worse in their scant regard for justice. Characters from the two stories cross each other’s paths in the avenues and cemeteries of Brussels but the only explicit connection between the two narratives is a wild pig chase.
In an arresting opening sequence, the different characters are shocked at the sight of a large pig careering through the streets of Brussels except that no one is never quite sure that pig is always the same one or whether the pig or pigs actually exist. Pigs in the abstract as opposed to pigs on the street become a central leitmotif in the novel as European agricultural policy on pig production becomes a metaphor for the recurrent tension between the wealth of nations and the well-being of the Union. Professor van der Koot, a talking egghead, recruited by a Brussels free sheet tells his readers that the pig was the “only animal which as a metaphor covered the entire breadth of human emotions and philosophies, from the pig in clover to to the filthy pig, from being ‘piggy in the middle’ to ‘a greedy piglet’”.
The crime story, a somewhat lurid Dan Brownesque yoking together of the Vatican and foreign intelligence services to track down and assassinate Islamic terrorists, does not convince. It does, however, give Menasse the opportunity to create two of the more memorable characters in the novel, Brunfaut, a Brussels police inspector, and Mateusz Oswiecki, a Polish martyr to the pathological piety of his youth.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most persuasive and finely detailed of the author’s creations are the two Austrian characters, Martin Susman and Alois Erhart. Susman works in the section of the Commission devoted to Culture and which is the object of universal ridicule. His boss, Fenia Xenopolou, is distraught at the sudden sidelining of her brilliant career into the tram shed of the Directorate-General for Culture. “Colleagues called Culture an alibi ministry – if only it were that! Alibis are important; every crime requires an alibi! But Culture wasn’t even window-dressing, because nobody bothered to look at what was being dressed up.”
It is Susman who comes up with the idea of putting Auschwitz at the heart of the jubilee event. His aim is to remind EU citizens why the EU ultimately matters. He is convinced the Union represents a vital brake on the sacrificial ideologies of European nationalisms which played out their toxic endgames on the battlefields and in the death camps.
Susman’s compatriot, Prof Alois Erhart, is similarly preoccupied with the future of Europe but is more focused on present failings than past wrongs. Invited to speak at a meeting on a “New Pact for Europe”, he despairs of the economic orthodoxy that admits of no dissent. The very policies of unregulated market growth that had brought European economies to their knees were now being touted as the only way out, irrespective of the human cost. He searches for an analogy and imagines an expert was to address the problem of obesity, “and the best way to combat this obesity would be to eat more, to force the body to excrete more, the increased volume of excrement leading to weight loss, and so on”. The reaction would be instant ridicule and disbelief. Not so Erhart believes when it comes to the dogmatic recycling of socially destructive economic policies that lead inevitably to the corrosive Euroscepticism of national populisms.
Robert Menasse has written an important and timely book, ably abetted and assisted in English by his translator, Jamie Bulloch. He is the latest in a long line of Austrian writers from Robert Musil to Karl Kraus to Elfriede Jelinek who put satire at the service of higher and more urgent truths.