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Robert Menasse: Die Hauptstadt (Capital)

The current prime minister of the United Kingdom, in the days when he was a (sort of) journalist, famously claimed that the EU was to ban bendy bananas and require all bananas to be straight. This was, of course, like most of what he says, an outright lie. Many people, however, did believe it. One of the main reasons for believing it is that it was not entirely unlikely that the EU would do such a thing, i.e. do something that was not needed, not wanted, served no useful purpose and would cost money.

The problem with satire is that when you satirise something like the EU or, indeed, people like Boris Johnson or Donald Trump, there is a grave risk that reality will be both funnier and more preposterous than your satire. Menasse falls partially into this trap though partially gets out of it by focussing his story on senior EU civil servants. As most of us do not know any senior EU civil servants and quite likely imagine them, probably not entirely inaccurately, to be stuffy, pompous and devoid of humour or charm, he can mock them, not just for their devotion to the cause but also for their different national foibles and for their total self-interest.

If I had to sum this book in four words, they would be Auschwitz, pigs and politics. The book opens in and around Place Sainte-Cathérine, in the centre of Brussels. Several of our key characters are in the neighbourhood. There is Kai-Uwe Frigge, principal private secretary in the EU Directorate-General for Trade and a German national. He is meeting Fenia Xenopoulou, head of Directorate C (“Communication”) in the Directorate-General for Culture and a Greek Cypriot. They are meeting for lunch but will later go to a hotel for sex. There is David de Vriend, a concentration camp survivor, who is moving from his flat, where he lived many years, to an old people’s home.

Martin Susman is an Austrian national and works for Fenia Xenopoulou. He is writing a novel. Mateusz Oświecki is a hitman. He has just killed someone in a nearby hotel, possibly the wrong person. Alois Erhart is also Austrian. He is staying in the hotel where Mateusz Oświecki killed the man. He is a retired professor, visiting Brussels. Finally, there is the pig. Yes, he is wandering round the square, just like the others. Investigating the murder, and therefore arriving a bit later, is Inspector Brunfaut, a Brussels police officer.

Pigs are quite important in this story. This particular pig is wandering round, unattended. No-one knows where he came from or where he is going. For the next few days, people will report seeing a pig wandering round, making him, if it is the same one, a very mobile pig. Pigs make other appearances in this book. De Vriend has pig bookmarks. There are little pigs on one of the gravestones. However, their most important role, of course, as this is the EU, is as a commodity.

Martin Susman’s brother is Florian. Their father had been a pig farmer, till a farm machine chewed him up. Florian took over – Martin was not competent enough – and has made the farm the biggest pig farm in Europe. The problem is that there are too many pigs produced in Europe so prices are falling. Unlike other products, pig selling policy is decided not by the EU but by individual countries, all of which are in competition with one another. China is a huge export market but China is trying to play the individual countries off against one another. Florian wants the EU to take charge and unite the countries and negotiate a joint deal with the Chinese. He wants pressure put on Frigge and wants his brother to do this. Martin, however, does not know Frigge and therefore does not know Frigge is having sex with his boss.

Martin has one other problem and that is that Fenia Xenopoulou wants to make her mark (so that she can get promoted out of Culture and into Trade) so she has decided to develop The Big Jubilee. It was not, of course, her idea but she has stolen it from Grace Atkinson (though she is nearly always referred to only as Mrs. Atkinson) from Communications. The basic idea is to enhance the standing of the Commission throughout Europe as it gets very bad ratings. Martin and his colleagues are instructed to come up with a plan and he comes up with an idea involving Auschwitz. It essentially means that the Commission is co-opting Auschwitz and the survivors of that camp to promote themselves. As you might imagine, everything does not go perfectly to plan.

We also follow the stories of the others. Our hitman feels that his employers are annoyed with his killing of the wrong man and flees and we follow his escape. Inspector Brunfaut is basically told by his superiors to drop the case and take some overdue leave. Anyone who has read or watched any cop stories will know perfectly well that the basic rule is that if a police officer is told to drop a case, he is going to pursue it in his own time and Inspector Brunfaut is no exception to the rule, with the only problems being that he has health problems and has no leads on the case at all.

David de Vriend is not happy in the old people’s home. Alois Erhart is in Brussels for a meeting of a group called A New Pact For Europe and it does not go well. Frigge is having problems with George Morland, his British colleague from Agriculture and Fenia Xenopoulou is struggling to get her promotion. Some of these stories merge, some do not. Most do not turn as expected, either by us or the characters. Some turn out badly.

Brexit does get mentioned but not in any great detail. Remarks are made about the British such as The British – even the president had once said this – only accepted one binding rule: that fundamentally they were an exception, which is almost certainly true but also applies to several other nationalities.

Some of the people in the novel try to use Auschwitz for political ends. One of the characters – David de Vriend – is an Auschwitz survivor and we also see things from his perspective.

If there is an overarching theme to this book, apart from mocking EU officials, it is the issue of nationalism versus supranationalism. Was the main point of the EU to get rid of nationalism and therefore get rid of national identities or was it merely to bring different nationalities together and try to harmonise, as far as possible, their activities? This debate has continued within the EU for a long time and views are widely differing, though it very much looks as though nationalism is a long way from disappearing. The issue is raised by various camps for various reason in this book and the case for both sides is made.

Menasse tries to cram too many stories into this book and some of them seem incomplete. Nevertheless, he has his go at mocking EU officials and various nationalities and their (stereotyped) foibles. The British, the Germans an the Greeks, for example, behave how we might expect them to behave if we have a stereotypical view of them. The use of Auschwitz for political ends, while not ignoring the serious aspect of what happened, is well done and, of course, the peripatetic pig is very clever. I would say that it was an enjoyable read but not a great work.

Publishing history

First published 2017 by Suhrkamp
First English translation 2019 by MacLehose Press
Translated by Jamie Bulloch