Stendhal likened politics in literature to a pistol-shot in a concert: crude, but compelling. When that politics largely consists of machinations within the European Commission in Brussels, readers may fear that the writer who pulls the trigger wields no more than a pop-gun. Yet the Austrian author Robert Menasse has scoured these corridors of power — and powerlessness — to furnish a thoroughly entertaining fiction that serves both as a sort of campus satire and a novel of ideas. For sure, Menasse has an agenda. His nicest characters tend to believe in the ‘post-national democracy’ of EU integration. Still, their efforts to sell the Brussels system as ‘the moral of history’ pass through enough comically convoluted byways to give succour to sceptics too.
With the disruptive Brits due to leave, ambitious middle-ranking staffers within the Commission want to celebrate its 50th birthday in style. Martin Susman, the high-minded Austrian son of a pig-farming dynasty, helps hatch a PR stunt to rescue his institution from the ‘unmitigated disaster’ of its opinion-poll ratings. He aims to round up the last few survivors of Auschwitz to promote the EU — its civil service above all — as ‘guardian of the lessons of history’.
This hubristic scheme nods to the ‘Parallel Campaign’ to commemorate the Habsburg monarchy in Robert Musil’s 1930s masterpiece The Man Without Qualities. Around it cluster a motley ensemble of idealists, pragmatists, time-servers and naked careerists. From the principled but naive Englishwoman Grace Atkinson to the upwardly-mobile Cypriot Fenia Xenopoulou, the ageing Austrian visionary Professor Erhart, and the Machiavellian Italian Count Strozzi, Menasse packs his Brussels with sharply-etched types. There’s even a murder to solve, with a Polish assassin on the run as dyspeptic Inspector Brunfaut finds that higher powers have made this murky case ‘vanish into thin air’. Why? Meanwhile, a melancholy veteran of the death camps, David de Vriend, acts as a reality-check. He belongs to the EU’s ‘prehistory’: the layers of tragic strife, and suffering, buried beneath today’s bureaucratic comedy.
Menasse has sly fun with the ‘Babylonian gibberish’ of the Commission and the Yes, Minister ruses of its staff. With its zest, pace and wit, Jamie Bulloch’s translation serves him splendidly. Intermittently, The Capital soars above the citadel of intrigue to give a ‘bird’s-eye perspective’ from the past. It tempers satire with sympathy for the battered dream of unified Europe as ‘the realm of freedom’ and solvent of national hatreds. Yet its snaking plot, and scheming mandarins, gleefully run away with the novel — like the fugitive pig trotting around Brussels as a grunting emblem of the mystery and mayhem that impede every masterplan to straighten Kant’s ‘crooked timber of humanity’. In Britain, I suspect, Menasse will gladden many hearts, but change few minds.