Welcome to the nbmagazine.co.uk stop on the blog tour for The Capital by Robert Menasse!

Here’s a little info about the book:

The fiftieth anniversary of the European Commission approaches, and the Directorate-General for Culture is tasked with organising an appropriate celebration. When Fenia Xenopoulou’s assistant comes up with a plan to put Auschwitz at the very centre of the jubilee, she is delighted. But she has neglected to take the other E.U. institutions into account.

Inspector Brunfaut is in a tricky situation too: his murder case has been suppressed at the highest level. Luckily, he’s friends with the I.T. whizz at Brussels’ Police H.Q., who gains access to secret files in the public prosecutor’s office. Matek, the Polish hitman, knows nothing of this. But he does know that he shot the wrong guy, and for Matek, who would rather have become a priest, this is serious.

Professor Erhart from Vienna is in Brussels to make a pitch for his grand idea for a new Europe, to remind people of how and why the E.U. came into being in the first place. But will the speech he intends to give to a think tank of likeminded Europeans prove his death knell?

David de Vriend has just moved into a nursing home and must adjust to his new surroundings. He carries with him only his tailored suits, memories of his long-dead parents and his last glimpse of them on a train in Poland, and a list of names, each one ready to be crossed off. Meanwhile the city is on the lookout for a runaway pig…

And here’s Paul Burke’s review of The Capital:

This extraordinary and original novel defies simple categorisation. The Capital is satirical comedy, with elements of the thriller, it’s also a polemic, an essay on modern Europe and a meditation on mortality. It’s an epic, rambunctious, irrepressible delight to read. Honestly, I never thought I’d laugh at Brexit but Menasse has an eye for highlighting the farcical in life and I don’t know what Brexit is if not high farce. But before any readers get carried away, this is not a novel about Britain, nor Britain, Brexit and Europe. It’s a novel about Europe, specifically the European Union and it’s beating heart, the Commission in Brussels. If you think this isn’t a topic for a novel, think again. This is tremendous fun but Menasse raises a number of important and thought provoking issues here too. This is a scattergun of a novel, picking it’s targets across the city, the de facto capital of Europe. The Capital is a lesson in European mechanisms, offices and procedures that is anything but dull. I really don’t think you will have read anything quite like this before.

Starting with the obvious; there is something of “Yes Commissioner” about this novel; rivalries, processes, machinations, absurdities. I can sense the Brexiteers taking that portrayal of the Commission as an affirmation of their worst fears of the European project (excess, bureaucracy and overreach), but bare in mind “Yes Minister” highlighted the same at the heart of the British political system. Menasse has determined that the Commission is robust enough to be lampooned and ridiculed without actually undermining it’s fundamental strengths and values. When he pokes fun, it can be wicked but it’s also affectionate.

Now that Menasse has published The Capital it makes you wonder why nobody put the Brussels Commission at the heart of a novel in this way before. It is, after all, a defining element of modern European life: economy, culture and politics. Even for Britain it will remain so for the foreseeable future.

The Capital has come along at a time when the European Union is under tremendous pressure, again, that’s not all about Blighty. Brexit features, but so does the rise of fascism across Europe and the virulent racism of the former Eastern Bloc, the economic crisis and migration issues. The novel illistrates the way the Commission is hampered in defending itself by national interests and how quickly people forget the reasoning behind the origins of the Union in the first place.

As for The Capital, it all begins with a pig…

“There’s a pig on the loose!” in Sainte-Catherine, the heart of Brussels. David de Vriend sees it scooting around the square as he prepares to leave his home for the last time after 60 years, he’s about to go into a home. De Vriend is a Jewish survivor of the KZ concentration camps. Kai-Uwe Frigge is late, his taxi driver quips;

“Fancy that! Almost went slap bang into a pig. What a road hog! But I saved his bacon, didn’t I, eh?”

Frigge, a German, is principal private secretary to the Directorate-General for Trade, a powerful man. He is heading for a tryst with Fania Xenopoulou, she is waiting for him at a local restaurant. The pig nearly hits the window in front of her before veering towards the Hotel Atlas. All the names have meaning, or bear a similarity to a real person, you figure out which is which. Xenopoulou is head of Culture at the Commission, of course she wanted her last promotion but not to this back water:

“It was about as pointless as sitting around playing Monopoly!”

She is hoping Frigge will save her (he is nicknamed Fridsch because he is a cold character). Just as the Commission’s “rescue umbrella” helped out Greece. Fenia wants out of culture, she tried to read a novel once, it didn’t go well. Although she can read, grasp and summarise complex new laws without a problem, novels don’t make any sense. Ryszard Oswiecki is leaving the Atlas Hotel as inconspicuously as possible under cover of the pig chase. Ryszard is also known as Mateusz or Matek, a hitman must have more than one identity, now has to leave the country. Gouda Mustafa is horrified by the thought of the pig touching him as it passes. While Martin Susman, architect of the “Noah’s Ark” project (culture and education) wonders if pig running is a Brussels tradition? He is Austrian but he is not here as a national representative, he enjoys the freedom to think supranationally. Professor Alois Erhart, musing on the origins of mustard, hears a shot but he thinks it’s a champagne cork popping. That only leaves Inspector Émile Brunfaut, who arrives at the hotel to investigate a murder, he completes the cast of major players. Soon after his bosses are keen to take the case off him; it’s not the first time national security has intervened in his job. Matek is trying to get back to Poland, running from the employers he now thinks want him dead, did he kill the wrong man?

With the popularity of the Commission at an all time low, Grace Atkinson, Director General of D-G. Comms (communications and corporate management within the EU), comes up with The Big Jubilee Project. A special celebration of fifty years of the European Commission. Xenopoulou latches onto an idea Martin Susman had after attending the annual Auschwitz memorial ceremony, 27th January. The plan is to hold The Big Jubilee at the concentration camp site, survivors will be present. Nowhere better explains the reasons why the EU came about. As the plan gathers momentum, doubts and sabotage follow. Take George Morland for instance:

“First and foremost he was a Brit, not a European, and within the Commission he wasn’t a European official, but a British official in the European civil service. And it was Great Britain’s iron policy to prevent further transfer of national sovereignty to Brussels, however minor.”

Martin Susman’s brother, Florian, is a farmer. He has come to lobby on behalf of European Pig Producers. He wants Martin to put a word in with Trade, the local market price is plummeting and a deal with China is crucial. The problem is that the nations of the Union are trying to get individual deals with the Chinese, they are undercutting each other.

The assassination plot can be seen as an adjunct to the main story, but it illustrates a wider Brussels story. This is a city defined by NATO and the European Commission but it is also the national capital, there is a Brussels beyond the EU that sometimes is separate and other times only tangentially connects.

The choice of Auschwitz as the venue for the Big Jubilee Project and the survey of history in the novel serve to explain the origins of the EU. Menasse gives us concrete examples of the Commission’s actions and what it does for the people of Europe. I have never understood the desire of some British people to reduce the protection of human rights, consumer rights, and worker rights enshrined in European legislation, neither I think does Menasse:

“the commission protect citizens from injustice is that arise from the difference between national legal systems…”

The exercise of collective power and the protections against fascism and the pettiness of individual nations are all positives for Menasse. It doesn’t mean he isn’t alive to the absurdity of bureaucracy:

“On the desk of the president of the European Council there arrived a note from the Austrian foreign minister, which made unequivocally clear that the Republic of Austria was both for and against the project: she supported the European Commission’s initiative, but could not give her approval to the plan in its current form.”

He sees the irony in legislation too. Susman has underpants that meet the European safety standard for fire retardation. But what use would it be if in a fire you burned to death and your underwear survived?

There are simple moments of observation that are hard to deny:

“the British…only accepted one binding rule: that fundamentally they were an exception.”

Even the supporters of the EU in Britain have lived by this rule.

Clearly Menasse is a fan of the European Union, he sees the search for ideals and common goals that supersede national interests as a good thing. He moved to Brussels from his home city Vienna in 2010 in order to research this novel, mingling with the Commission staff, the locals and the national representatives to inform the novel. He is a believer in the idea of a post national, democratic Europe. This passionate intelligent novel is a wonder. Engaging, informative, funny and insightful – whether you agree or not with the post national premise. Jamie Bulloch’s translation captures the variety, charm and mood of this novel brilliantly.

Meanwhile, the saga of Brexit rolls on, or perhaps more accurately, sits in a layby while politicians employ the ancient art of a wing and a prayer.

Paul Burke 5/5

The Capital by Robert Menasse
MacLehose Press 9780857058621 hbk Feb 2019