The Capital: Robert Menasse

Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch
Published by MacLehose Press, 2019, 411 pages. Original version published in 2017.

The European Commission seems an unlikely setting for a novel. But by foregrounding the people who work for the EC, with their individual quirks, worries and talents, Robert Menasse brings the institution to life.

Fenia Xenopolou (aka Xeno), the head of the Communication Department in the Directorate-General for Culture, is desperate to get out of Culture, the least prestigious of all the EC Directorates. She thinks that masterminding a jubilee event for the EC’s 50th anniversary will bring her to the notice of those who have the power to help. One of her staff, Martin Sussman, has an idea. Why not put Auschwitz survivors at the centre, to emphasize the fact that that the EC was created to unite Europe and to ensure that the Holocaust is never repeated? He convinces Xeno, who starts to contact her colleagues for support.

What follows is a wonderful description of how to kill a project without ever openly doing so. The project reaches the “virtually unflappable” Romolo Strozzi, the private secretary to the President of the EC. A master strategist and fencer, Strozzi knows that the President would never oppose a plan to embellish the EC’s image. However, he also knows this plan will not work. “If you wanted to kill off an idea, first you had to agree with it and offer it your full support, upon which everyone happily dropped their guard. … [I]f you can induce your opponent to commit hara-kiri you no longer need to attack.” Which is exactly what happens.

In the middle of all this, Martin’s older brother, Florian, a pig farmer, pays him a visit. He wants to persuade Martin to lobby the EU to strike a deal with China on pig’s ears, which are a costly delicacy in China but are sold as pet food in Europe for a pittance. In the absence of a Europe-wide deal, individual countries are negotiating their own trade agreements with China. Florian would rather be part of a Europe-wide deal than depend on a national one. The danger is that if even a single country succeeds in signing a treaty with China, the EU would no longer have a mandate for negotiations.

“And then the serious contest would begin, the undercutting, the attempt to oust one’s neighbour. Instead of proceeding jointly, they would destroy each other and in their desire for national growth they would precipitate a European crisis.”

Pig farming is also a bone of contention between the agricultural and trade directorates, part of their ongoing turf battle. DG-AGRI is trying to reduce pig production by cutting subsidies to farmers, while DG-TRADE wants to boost pig production because of trade opportunities with other countries, especially China.

Pigs are a theme in this book. There is a pig wandering around Brussels. No one knows who the pig belongs to or what it is doing in the city, or even whether there is just one pig or several on the loose.

The book does not confine itself to the EC but spreads out to Brussels. Inspector Émile Brunfaut is investigating a murder that took place in the Atlas Hotel. He is summoned by his superiors, who tell him to forget about it. But when he finds that all the material on his investigation has disappeared, he is determined to find out why.

In this book, Menasse has humanized the European Commission. He seems to know the EC—and Brussels—very well. His satire also touches on the way things work in the outside world: for example, the the condescension and infantilization old people have to put up with in retirement homes.

I love books with a strong sense of place, Brussels, with its multinational population and eateries, its cobbled streets and cemeteries—quite a bit of the plot takes place in graveyards—is very much a character in its own right.

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