Book Reviews · 09/30/2019

The Capital by Robert Menasse

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

Liveright, 2019

As a literary place, Brussels has both real and metaphorical qualities that make it an enticing setting for fiction. It is a cosmopolitan metropolis, business hub, and the headquarters for such unusual institutions as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At the same time it is a synecdoche for the European Union, a symbol for a continental project of peace and prosperity. It is the promised land of mostly young, educated professionals who seek employment in its halls of political and corporate power. Meanwhile, critics picture it as the seat of a dark, stodgy, all-consuming power whose austerity or odd regulations must be beaten back.

It is amidst all of these layers that Robert Menasse sets The Capital, a meandering novel about Europe, Europeans, and the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch. Menasse takes us through the city’s streetscapes, inside its cafes and conference rooms, to condemned apartment buildings and renovated retirement homes. Even so, memory is the novel’s most important destination.

The Capital, which is translated from the original German by Jamie Bulloch, takes aim at important questions through humor and paradox, which makes it both an engaging and thoughtful read. However, one is left with the feeling that Menasse’s work parallels his characters’: much as they undertake ambitious (and doomed) projects, so too has the author taken a bite that’s too large to swallow.

In Menasse’s plots and subplots, Brussels exists as a place of conflicting identities and boundaries. China Miéville’s The City & The City provides a remarkable comparison point. (There is also a murder mystery in both stories.) Miéville’s two overlapping city-states, Besźel and Ul Qoma, highlight the absurdity of a world where people who exist in the same physical space must avoid interacting with each other based solely on their nationality. Menasse’s Brussels is even more complicated as subnational, national, and supranational allegiances set the parameters for how characters interact with each other. As Fenia (a Commission lifer) discovers, the simple fact of having a Greek or Cypriot passport can make the difference between a promotion and the professional wilderness.

War — especially World War II — provides a persistent background through memory at the personal and historical levels. Characters frequently reminisce about their forebears’ role during the conflict. Fenia’s uncle dies in the “resistance”: “She didn’t know which war or civil war had been raging then, it was before she was born, and so for her it was as distant as the Peloponnesian War.” Remembrance is clearer for Inspector Brunfaut, a Belgian, whose grandfather taught him that Germans “came [to Brussels] three times, twice in their boots with rifles, the third time in their trainers with cameras. We were thrust into a prison and released as servants.”

Other characters suffered more directly. Ryszard, a Polish assassin, lost his grandfather to Nazism and his father to Communism. David De Vriend, a Belgian Jew, twice survived deportation to Auschwitz. In the 21st century, however, the main threats come from the “trench warfare” of European Commission politics, cars that ignore cyclists, or choking on a fishbone.

Yet war forms the tension each character confronts in The Capital. This revolves primarily around a daft plan to celebrate the Commission’s fiftieth birthday by drafting Auschwitz survivors as witnesses to the idea of “overcoming national sentiment,” thus portraying the Commission “as guardian of the lessons of history and of human rights.”

The preparations for this project to restore the Commission’s tarnished reputation create some scenes of pointed humor. Martin, one of Fenia’s hapless underlings, visits the concentration camp’s memorial for the anniversary of its liberation with a “Guest of Honor” badge, which admonishes its owner not to not lose the card: “If the card is lost you are no longer permitted to stay in the camp.” Later, he and his colleagues search for survivors to enlist. To their chagrin, they discover that meticulous lists exist of those who perished in the camps, but not of those who lived.

However, the way Martin and his colleagues idealize the camp experience fundamentally misunderstands the Holocaust and its horrors. As he makes the case for the project, Martin argues:

Nothing in history has brought together the diverse identities, mentalities, and cultures of Europe, the religions, the different so-called races and former hostile ideologies, nothing has created such a fundamental solidarity of all people as did the experience of Auschwitz.

This is hard to see in the memoirs of survivors like Primo Levi. The professor of Jewish literature and author Dara Horn poignantly makes a similar point about “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away,” an exhibition in New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. “I find myself furious, being lectured by this exhibition about love — as if the murder of millions of people was actually a morality play, a bumper sticker, a metaphor,” Horn asserts.

Though the Nazi genocide contributed to the postwar desire for European unity, reducing victims to symbols for beliefs they did not hold dehumanizes and exploits them. The German novelist Günter Grass declared in 1989 “that Germany should remain divided, the unified state having ‘laid the foundations for Auschwitz.’” In The Capital, the Holocaust is politicized for a different goal, which Menasse cleverly uses to strike at the tensions between Europe’s history and its present.

This well-intentioned but pernicious confusion isn’t the bureaucrats’ only questionable behavior. Menasse takes a stab at the European Union and its stereotypes by juxtaposing the EU’s penchant for regulation with Fenia, Martin, and others’ private unruliness. European administrators set punctilious standards for ventilation in pig stalls, underwear flammability, and the minimum level of dignity at funerals. By contrast, the civil servants we encounter disable fire alarms to smoke in their offices and nonchalantly toss butts from the window when they’re done.

The Capital’s residents struggle for meaning and survival in a manner that echoes that of the subjects of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Closing Time. Menasse’s prose is often similar to Heller’s, with scenarios that border the nonsensical and paradoxes that flummox characters. When Inspector Brunfaut feels ill and visits a hospital, his roommate attempts to reassure him:

Of course Monsieur Géronnez wanted to swap medical histories without delay. Brunfaut said tersely that he was just here for a full medical examination, a precautionary measure.
Well, Géronnez said, they’ll find something, they always do, after the age of fifty you can bet your life that they’ll find something; if the doctors don’t find anything wrong with a man over fifty then I start asking myself what they’ve been studying. Then you need to change hospitals. But don’t worry, you’re in good hands here, the Europe [hospital] is the best of the lot, here they always find something.

The grating hospital neighbor is a figure straight out of Heller, as are his attempts to explain a backwards logic through insistent repetition. Géronnez’s farcical suggestions edge Brunfaut towards a reality he seeks to avoid.

Similarly, Byzantine bureaucracies are the main antagonists, typified by eccentric characters such as Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22 or Romolo Strozzi, the private secretary to the Commission’s president, in The Capital. In a meeting with Fenia, Strozzi traps her with absurd questions and circular arguments: “Of course there’s a difference. There are differences in all things that are similar. And all things that differ from each other are also alike!” Both authors also satirize capitalism by portraying absurd business interests.

As in Closing Time, or in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Menasse’s characters are variously emotionally and physically wounded and in search for meaning. They feel that they are past their prime and make an effort, before it’s too late, to achieve a success that remains beyond their reach. That is perhaps the author’s metaphor for the European Union, which confronts the potential of what could have been with the threat of descent into irrelevance.

The Capital is too short, or too complex, to afford each character enough space. Several narrative arcs begin without concluding, though the book ends with the words “À suivre” (French for “to be continued”). This is not necessarily a tantalizing prospect. Menasse does conjure some moments of true humor and fundamental questions about humans and their institutions, but The Capital leaves an aftertaste of incompleteness. This is where the European Union differs from this book: it, too, may be flawed and unfinished, but it should certainly be continued.


Robert Menasse is an Austrian writer and essayist. His work has received various awards, including the European Book Prize and the prestigious German Book Prize.


Jamie Bulloch is a historian and translator of German literature. His most recent translations include Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes and Raw Material by Jörg Fauser.


Giacomo Bagarella (@g_bagarella) writes about international affairs, technology, and books. His work has been published in TechCrunch, Foreign Policy, an Italian newspaper, and in peer-reviewed journals. He runs the blog The Envoy.