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Robert Menasse


Die Hauptstadt (The Capital City)

Category: Fiction | Published: 2017 | Review Added: 09-10-2017

Rating: 4 - A top read

At least two major German-language writers have written extensively about the European Union. One is the poet, essayist and occasional novelist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, probably best known outside Germany for his writing on the media and his coinage "consciousness industry" to describe them. He has generally been critical of the EU, going as far as calling "Brussels" a monster, albeit a gentle one. The second is the Austrian novelist Robert Menasse, who, whilst not uncritical, has been much more positive on the basis of his rejection of nationalism in favour of the ideal of transnational cooperation.

In order to write the "European" novel to be considered here, Menasse spent considerable time in Brussels studying how the various institutions of the EU worked. His experiences initially led him to write a long essay on the EU which appeared in 2012 under the title Der europäische Landbote ("The European Messenger"), the title invoking a pamphlet entitled Der hessische Landbote written by the nineteenth-century German revolutionary writer Georg Büchner. He has also addressed the European Parliament, calling on it in early 2017 to defend Scotland against English nationalists. This speech has been translated into English, as no doubt Die Hauptstadt will be soon.

Speaking about the role of the EU in his work, Menasse has said that he first needed to express his political standpoint directly, as otherwise there would be the danger of authorial political comment playing too prominent a role in his novel. Although it inevitably has numerous political themes, there is no doubt that Die Hauptstadt belongs entirely to the genre of the novel, with any direct comments on political issues invariably made from the perspective of its characters. Within its almost 500 pages, it contains a variety of characters and plot lines, linked together by their relationship to the EU, its institutions and/or Europe more widely.

If there is a main plot, it centres around a plan, given the English name "The Big Jubilee Project", to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the European Commission in its current form in order to increase the prestige of that body at a time when it is held in increasingly low esteem by the European public. It is a task allotted to the Culture Department, a part of the Commission not generally taken very seriously by those working, for example, in the area of trade. Accordingly the Head of Department, a Greek Cypriot by birth Fenia Xenopoulu, is not pleased with having been moved into this backwater and is keen to move elsewhere. The success of the Jubilee Project would help her in this. The idea that finds initial favour comes from an Austrian Martin Susman, the son of an Austrian farmer and thus, like his head of department, someone who has risen from a modest background. He suggests that "Auschwitz" should be at the centre of the event because overcoming everything that brought it about is at the heart of the European project. One aim is to find at least one of the few remaining survivors of the camp, something that proves difficult, because ironically, whereas records of victims have been meticulously kept in various places, lists of survivors are hard to come by. However, it is all to no avail. When the European Council, which represents the individual member states, gets wind of the project, their officials kill it off under a variety of pretexts, with the Germans claiming, for example, that Muslims living in Europe would feel excluded if Auschwitz were at the heart of the Jubilee. This outcome reflects Menasse's frustration at the continuing power of the member states in the EU, whilst the description of the relevant meetings is an example of his effective use of satire somewhat reminiscent of "Yes, Minister".

Whilst the search is on for Auschwitz survivors there is one nearby, a retired teacher, de Vriend, who has just moved into an old people's home, where he feels constrained by communal living. Having jumped from a train bound for Auschwitz, he joined the Belgian resistance, specifically a brigade whose aspiration for the post-war age was a united Europe. Eventually captured, he was transported to his original destination. His sense of unease with his new situation leads him to leave the home one day with no particular destination in mind. Whilst travelling on the underground, he is blown up in a terrorist explosion. Clearly, Menasse is not equating a care home with a concentration camp. That his character does not wish to feel in any way imprisoned is nevertheless quite credible. What is being stressed as well through the character de Vriend is the undoubted historical link between resistance to Nazism and the desire for European unity. As for the death through terrorism, Menasse has said in an interview that this was planned before such an event took place in reality.

Resistance also plays an important part in one of the other sub-plots. Towards the beginning of the novel there is an explosion in a Brussels hotel which kills one person. Inspector Brunfaut is put in charge of the investigation, at least until he is told to stop by higher authority. Following the example of his grandfather who was active in the Resistance, he continues his work. What he discovers with the aid of a helpful colleague is that the hotel murder is one of series of murders committed by killers working in the service of the Vatican, whose deeds are then hushed up by secret services. There are obvious links here to the detective or spy novel, although the reader knows from the outset who committed the murder. It is a Pole who spent some time training to be a priest. The novel follows his movements after his deed, as, believing he has killed the wrong person, he tries to escape the repercussions of his failure from his employers. It has to be said that this is the weakest part of the novel. Whether or not one believes that this kind of murder occurs, the link with the major themes of the novel is somewhat tenuous.

This is not the case with two other strands of the novel. Both the protagonists are Austrians. One is a retired Professor of Economics Alois Erhart, whose surname is only one letter different from that of the "father of the German Economic Miracle" Ludwig Erhard, incidentally not the only occasion when one of Menasse's names is reminiscent of that of an historical personage. It is not the case, however, that Erhart is following his near namesake's policies. What they might be considered to have in common is a sense of vision. Erhart is in Brussels to take part in a think-tank named in English "New Pact for Europe", the brief of which is to consider the future of the EU. An ungainly figure, he stands out against his colleagues because of his unorthodox views. Unlike them, he does not believe that the way out of an economic crisis is to continue the same policies that led to the same crisis, only in a more extreme form. In the case of the Greek crisis, this is the view of a Greek financial expert, who has obtained for himself a good job in Oxford. That Erhart is voicing Menasse's view is clearly implied by his choice of café after the discussion: Café Kafka! When Erhart later makes his formal contribution to his colleagues, he dumbfounds them by suggesting that what was needed was post-national economics in a post-national democracy.

This kind of thinking is what is lacking in the area in which the second Austrian referred to above is working. He is Florian, the brother of Martin Susman and in most respects his opposite. Not at all bookish, he has devoted his life to pig farming, turning his father's modest farm into a leading producer of pig meat. He is also the President of the European Pork Producers Association. The problem such producers face is a surplus of pork production in the EU with the only hope being increased exports to China. However, there is no common EU policy in this area, with the result that individual nations are competing for this lucrative market instead of co-operating. The matter is taken out of his hands when he is involved in a road accident on the way to a meeting in Budapest. In his absence, a new president, a nationalistic Hungarian is elected. Florian learns in his hospital bed that Hungary is now negotiating bilaterally with China. He decides he will throw in the towel and take advantages of the EU's payments to those who stop producing pork although he is aware that this will mean making his employees redundant. The implication of this outcome is that a lack of European cooperation in such an area has negative economic consequences.

This turn of events makes it possible for Menasse to show his dislike of recent political developments in Hungary. In the event, Florian's nationalistic successor, who seeks a bilateral deal between his country and China fails completely in his mission, once he has told his Chinese hosts that Hungarians admire what the Chinese did in Tiananmen Square. Alongside Hungary, nationalists in one other Central European country, the Czech Republic, come in for severe criticism. The sister of one of Martin Susman's colleagues becomes engaged to a neo-fascist. After much heartache he decides he not to attend the wedding, a decision that underlines both the threat to the EU from right-wing extremism and the impossibility of any co-existence with it.

One other country that unsurprisingly comes in for criticism is the United Kingdom, which at least by the time the action of the novel concludes, has decided to leave the EU. One particular British official named George Morland is portrayed extremely negatively starting with his less than attractive physical appearance. The first comment about him and his like comes from the perspective of a more likeable fellow-countrywoman, his former rival Mrs Atkinson, who is the Commission's General Director in charge of communication and whose surname is slightly reminiscent of that of Catherine Ashton, who between 2010 and 2014 was First Vice-President of the Commission. One reason they have a difficult relationship is, in her view, because of her gender, with Morland displaying a "typically British male upper-class horror of the vagina". It is later revealed that he was a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford and, as part of an initiation rite, had been forced to stick his penis into the mouth of a dead pig. From then he had determined never to suffer any further humiliation. The result in Brussels is an invariably obstructive attitude motivated by his nationalism. As someone working for the nation-based Council in the area of agriculture, he suggests that it should be at the heart of the Jubilee Project, his way, in Mrs Atkinson's view, of both contributing to the failure of the supranational Auschwitz project and harming her reputation. If Morland is portrayed as an out and out nationalistic villain, it is at least said that certain British officials have a positive attitude or at least did before the Brexit referendum. Some, since that decision, are said to have put most of their energies into post-work beer and darts. Clearly, the novel does not have the aim of charming Brexiteers.

Die Hauptstadt starts with a pig running loose in the streets of Brussels; it ends with the newspaper Le Soir calling off a campaign of mockery against the free newspaper Metro, which had asked readers to choose a name for the loose pig, because of the protests of animal lovers against such an attitude. Whereas it would be an interesting project to write a book about pigs in literature, the important thing here is to note how the pig motif encompassing one live pig and many dead ones underlines how Menasse, often humorously, is able to bring together all the different elements of his novel. What he does not do is provide an ending. The last words of the novel, written in French, are "à suivre" (to be continued). I cannot wait.

Review by Stuart Parkes

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