On a hot summer evening, one of the many men peopling Brussels meanders down the city’s streets. “Entering rue des Poissonniers he noticed a coffee house on the corner, Café Kafka. How apt, he thought, and went in for a glass of wine . . . He had always liked a drink, but usually to celebrate, not out of frustration.” The man in question, Alois Erhart, is a Viennese professor who has traveled to the city serving as the official seats of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Council in order to give a keynote speech to many of the technocrats there. The task, which should be fairly routine and perfunctory for him, has become fraught with emotion: a heartfelt address harking back to the days of the European Union’s founding, and proposing a site where the sprawling system could erect an official, permanent capital, building a new future out of the past’s ashes. This prospect has been harshly tempered by his knowledge that those who hear him are all too likely to shrug off his passionate call to arms with the cold, obfuscating neutrality of immense bureaucracy. To step into a coffee house called Café Kafka is to highlight, fleetingly, just how much like hapless Josef K. this professor is, and just how thoroughly the byzantine corridors of Franz Kafka’s The Castle have found their real-life counterpart in the Brussels of Robert Menasse’s sly satire, The Capital.
But Menasse is too humane a writer to see the world in such bleak terms as the Czech stylist. A chain-smoking sexagenarian from Austria, he believes not in great cosmic or historical forces but in individual actions and destinies. And for that reason, he packed his bags and moved from his hometown in Vienna to the half-archaic, half-modern metropolis of Brussels, the city that became the de facto headquarters of the European Union not because of any special virtue but because Belgium was the first, alphabetically, of the six nations that signed the Treaty of Paris (the other five being France, Germany, Luxemburg, Italy, and the Netherlands). And almost immediately after that treaty was ratified, bureaucratic inertia set in: no consensus could be reached for how the other five capitals ought to act as hosts.
The people he met there as he set to start writing what could perhaps be considered the first Great EU Novel helped to inspire the characters populating The Capital: Fenia Xenopoulou, a nakedly ambitious bureaucrat from Cyprus who originally entered the EU’s ranks using her Greek passport; Count Strozzi, an Italian schemer; Mateusz Oświecki, a Polish assassin who decides to escape the city and the system after believing he has bungled his job, doing everything in his power to hide his traces; and Inspector Émile Brunfaut, an investigator who tries to make sense of mundane matters but finds international security measures stopping him in his tracks—as well as outsiders who get caught in the machinery’s gears, from David de Vriend, a Holocaust survivor still alive in Belgium and crossing names off a list of fellow survivors every time he reads the obits, to the Viennese professor Alois Erhart struggling with the keynote speech he has been asked to deliver.
The speech has been requested as part of the Directorate-General for Culture’s preparations for the fiftieth anniversary of the European Commission (a tricky thing to pinpoint—“Was it the founding day of the E.E.E.C. Commission? Or the date of the founding of the European Commission in its current form, following the Merger treaty? In the first instance, the Commission would be sixty in three years’ time, in the second fifty in two years . . . Half a century. Easier to sell.”) with a Jubilee Celebration. The idea is proposed by Grace Atkinson, a scrupulous Britishwoman with tunnel vision, and immediately championed by Fenia Xenopoulou in hopes that spearheading a successful event will enable her to move laterally to a department she doesn’t consider such a backwater. The proposal metamorphoses into a setup that involves bringing together the last living survivors of the Holocaust to recall the European Union’s origins amid a rising tide of nationalism.
Such a premise was apropos when Menasse was writing his novel from 2010 onward, and felt even more on-the-nose when it was published in Germany in 2017, as a wave of elections was shifting nations all across Europe further and further to the right. When MacLehose acquired the British rights, they planned to publish it just before Brexit was scheduled to happen, at the end of March 2019 (“It was Great Britain’s iron policy to prevent further transfer of national sovereignty to Brussels, however minor,” one character muses to himself in the novel). The dream of a unified Europe had already been sorely tested by the Greek debt crisis, and nationalist leaders, from Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen to Viktor Orbán and Geert Wilders, were commanding more and more media attention. The Capital seemed to be asking: Was a union with no national divisions possible anymore?
The strange charm of Menasse’s polyphonic story is in how it suggests that such an European Union is inextricably bound to its diversity of member countries—
The following day the Polish government instructed Polish officials in the various ministries to pull the plug on this European Commission “campaign,” which was an attack on the pride of the Polish nation. In particular the D.-G. COMM needed to be reminded that Auschwitz extermination camp was a German crime and therefore a purely German problem. The Federal Republic of Germany was cordially invited to dismantle the German extermination camp on Polish soil and exhibit it as a museum in Germany. In any case a culture of commemorating crimes committed on Polish soil by occupying powers would be an inappropriate moral canopy over an economic community.
—and yet utterly dependent on their continued collaboration. An endeavor made possible only by understanding the particular whims and fancies driving each character in this drama, and finding a way to satisfy each’s itch. More often than not, this prison mentality plays out hilariously—Fenia sleeping with Kai-Uwe Frigge so that he will put in a good word for her in another department; a group of employees in the E.U. Cycling Group slapping “You’re in the way!” stickers on poorly parked cars as they trade gossip on their way to the office; two senior officials (one speaking in “charming ‘Hunglish’ – Änglish with ä Hún-gä-ri-an äcc-ent”) meeting covertly at an Irish pub named Kitty O’Shea’s in order to sort out yet another clash between the Commission and the Council.
And sometimes, even as the wheels of bureaucracy turn interminably, the various cogs within the European Union manage to make good things happen, or even very simply “protect citizens from injustice is that arise from the difference between national legal systems.” What reads as a thinly veiled rebuke to the British forces determined to sunder the country from the Union is in fact a humane justification for this massive, transnational, determinedly supra-political project.
At moments, the novel feels so sprawling that the only director capable of bringing it to the screen might be Cecil B. DeMille, and yet it feels intensely immediate, deeply personal. Even in light of the years Menasse spent in Brussels researching this novel, it seems rather extraordinary that such an abstract, amorphous entity as the European Union could have been rendered so intimately; that Jamie Bulloch was able to bring this same gentle, ironic humor to the English is proof positive of his formidable skill as a translator.
The Capital has been referred to in various reviews as a potential Great European Union Novel. But is such a thing possible? The question recalls the Romantic nationalist fervor of the early nineteenth century, after the Brothers Grimm unearthed “authentically German” folktales, Rossini wrote the opera William Tell to propagate the national myth of Switzerland, and the long-forgotten Song of Roland was resuscitated for a newly energized French readership. Those texts were the result of nationalistic stirrings that were shunted aside when Hitler, rhapsodizing about the power of a Third Reich, attempted to conquer other parts of Europe and wipe out horrific portions of the population. Out of the wreckage of World War Two came the abstract idealism of supranational harmony. Not a myth, but a concept; not a singular role model to emulate, but a goal to strive toward. As Professor Erhart draws on these historical facts to build toward the final point of his keynote lecture, it is hard not to imagine that he is the alter ego of Robert Menasse himself, determined to see the good in a complicated and often-misunderstood institution. When Kafka described bureaucracy in The Castle, he was writing an anti-epic that showed how no man could be a hero in the face of a brutally self-interested world. But when Menasse describes bureaucracy in The Capital, he writes a new kind of story that makes an inhuman structure breathe with humanity. Just as the European Commission and the European Union are the sum of so many interlocking parts, The Capital is an accumulation of many small stories that, brought together, tell a broader, truly vital story.
Throughout the pages of The Capital, there are sketches of a pig, illuminating the unexpected creature that has been running amok all over Brussels. Some people are nearly killed as cars swerve around it; some people spin out conspiracy theories as its various appearances around the city are reported breathlessly; some people are convinced that it is dead, already slaughtered and waiting to be chopped up at a butcher. But somehow this strange creature, as smart as a three-year-old child and as frenzied as a bureaucrat determined to prevent a diplomatic nightmare, keeps on grunting and running through every street in the city—in Menasse’s hands, a perfect symbol, if ever there was one, for the unwieldy yet perpetually fascinating organism that is the European Union.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is an editor for Music & Literature and a translator from the French.