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Robert Menasse: The Capital review - much more than just an EU satire | reviews, news & interviews

Robert Menasse: The Capital review - much more than just an EU satire

Robert Menasse: The Capital review - much more than just an EU satire

European attitudes vividly counterpointed and characterised in a rich and complex novel

Robert Menasse addressing the European Parliament in Brussels at the official ceremony to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties on 21 March 2017

Forty years ago this July, Simone Veil gave her inaugural speech as first President of the European Parliament. She had many issues to include. Peace came first; as a survivor of Auschwitz and the "death march" just before liberation, she well understood why "our Assembly has, whatever its differences, a fundamental responsibility" to maintain it. She also saw the difficulties ahead in holding the centre of European solidarity over and above the immediate national concerns of the Union's members. Austrian Robert Menasse's novel is the first I've read to bring to life the complexity of such a difficult balance, and to root it in Brussels (though there are also scenes in Vienna, Krakow - and Auschwitz).

"The Capital" ("Die Hauptstadt" in the original language - it won the German Book Prize in 2017) seems to imply the main centre of EU activities and its headquarters, the Berlaymont building on Rue de la Loi. The obvious attribution holds good until a surprising twist. Inevitably there's more than a whiff of the satirical about Menasse's handling of "Brussels bureaucracy". But it would be wrong to pigeonhole this masterwork of literature as merely a satire, or taking a sideswipe at the EU, funny though it can be.

Robert Menasse's The CapitalIt's also educational: did you, for instance, know that the Commission's department for culture is a graveyard for careerists, since it gets a tiny budget? Don't expect much timewasting on Brexit, though - all you learn is that for most EU employees other than the Brits it's a side issue. What you will find are ambitious, unscrupulous climbers up the Berlaymont ladder and folk of an integrity sometimes verging on the naive. Menasse brings them, and shadier figures around the fringes, fully to life, and makes them spark in an original mixture of dialogue, surreptitious emailing and what's going on in their heads: I'm thinking of the consummate start of Chaper Six where one of the idealists barely gets the attention of the most unimaginative bureaucrat. But even she's not a caricature; later chapters deal with the ramifications of her erotic involvement with a man she simply wanted to use.

This is above all the polyphonic novel in excelsis; if there's a protagonist, it would be the elusive EU itself. Menasse launches the countepoint of characters with the common thread of a mysterious pig on the loose in the Belgian capital. Right from the start the bigger issues of mortality arise with a retired teacher packing up to go into a home for the elderly and a young Polish priest-assassin.The larger aspects of the human comedy overshadow any fleeting parody or headlong plot. Yet The Capital still, somehow, manages to be a pageturner.

Plot strands are certainly not resolved neatly, and sometimes not at all; despite a dramatic event shortly before the end, a case of mistaken-identity murder remains obscure and the futures of many of the characters hang in the balance. I thought the final words, "à suivre", portended a sequel, and I care enough to find out, but the expression apparently means the ongoing cycle of repetitive if calamitous news pertaining to the editorial office which is the setting for the epilogue. Whatever the case, I want to read much more from this major European writer - and from the same publisher, the heroic MacLehose Press and translator, Jamie Bulloch, who plays a crucial role in making you feel within a few pages that this is a work by one of the supreme masters of the English language.

There are ambitious, unscrupulous climbers up the Berlaymont ladder and folk of an integrity sometimes verging on the naive

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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