Magazine | August 26, 2019, Issue

Robert Menasse’s Messy EU Novel

(Neil Hall/Reuters )
The Capital: A Novel, by Robert Menasse (Liveright, 416 pp., $27.95)

In an age when cultural appropriation is “problematic,” the EU is a repeat offender. Not content with stealing a continent’s name and rewriting its history, the engineers of “ever closer union” have spent years squeezing centuries of art into a “European” (as they abuse that term) straitjacket, a maneuver anticipated by General de Gaulle during a press conference over half a century ago. Dante, Goethe, and Chateaubriand, he agreed, “belonged to Europe” insofar as they were Italian, German, and French. But they would not have done much for Europe had they lacked a nationality and written in some sort of “harmonized Esperanto or” — and here de Gaulle reinforced mockery with erudition — “Volapük.” 

Imagine then the joy among the Union’s cheerleaders over The Capital, a novel by the Austrian writer Robert Menasse that is, in some senses, a genuine artifact of an “EU” culture. According to Konrad Richter, writing in Politico’s European edition, it is “the first great EU novel,” a low bar, but still. Not only that, Capital has been a best-seller in Germany. It won that country’s most prestigious literary prize and has been widely translated, including, now, into English. “Menasse,” exulted the Financial Times, “is pioneering the genre of Eurolit.” The reviewer at the no less Europhile Economist rejoiced in the way that, “contrary to stereotypes, Mr. Menasse found that . . . Eurocrats tended to be clever, humane and dedicated.” More marvelously still, this “unexpectedly delightful book . . . captures the glowing idealism of an era when the EU was run by people who remembered the war,” a treacly interpretation of the past that suggests that it is easier for a book review to degenerate into propaganda than we might hope. Or maybe the reviewer was just somebody who knows embarrassingly little about the beginnings of an institution that owed its existence to war weariness, yes, but also to American realpolitik, Europe’s lightly camouflaged imperial nostalgia, and a profound distrust of democracy. 

Menasse has played similarly questionable games — and in his case that is, as we shall see, a very mild adjective — with the EU’s history, but he has at least been straightforward about where he stands politically. He is a vocal Eurofundamentalist of the Left, intolerant of dissent, faintly paranoid, and eager to disparage “national egoism” to any passing interviewer. In Enraged Citizens, European Peace, and Democratic Deficits (2012), a spittle-flecked by-product of the years he spent in Brussels researching The Capital, Menasse condemned the idea of national identity as a “sordid ideology,” raged at Euroskeptics, spiced up his screed with some dodgy statistics (“60 percent of the United Kingdom’s . . . GDP is generated in London through wild speculation”), and called for the apparently woefully inadequate democracies of the EU’s member-states to be swept away in favor of a supranational replacement in which, doubtless, the right sort of opinions would prevail. This diatribe was awarded 2015’s European Book Prize. Of course it was. 

There is room for a good, even great, novel about the EU, an undeniably fascinating political construction whatever else one might think, but The Capital, sadly, is not it. It’s not that this is a book coming from a point of view I do not share — to worry about that would be to rule out a lot of fine literature — and it’s not even the dishonesty metastasizing out from its core. Mainly, the problem is that The Capital is a mess, more of a shantytown, really. Menasse has written a novel made up of many strands in an attempt, possibly, to hint at the EU’s sprawl and its intricacy, but the result is an ill-fitting, if notionally intertwined, series of stories, including one — involving a shadowy Catholic assassin — that seems to have got lost on its way to a Dan Brown novel. The parallels with the structure of the EU may be there all right, but they may not quite be what Menasse intended. 

If there is anything that truly links these subplots (well, most of them, anyway), it is their connection to some of the darkest chapters in Europe’s 20th century, a connection presumably designed to buttress Menasse’s key message: The EU is there to ensure that the horrors of that past have been banished for good. Thus, one character is the grandson of a hero of the Belgian resistance, another is the child of a Nazi implicated, he discovers, in wartime atrocities, and a third is a Holocaust survivor. The shadowy Catholic assassin, a Pole, Mateusz Oswiecki, is the grandson and son of freedom fighters butchered by Nazis and Communists respectively. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that his surname contains more than an echo of Oświęcim, the Polish town known in German as “Auschwitz.”

It is Auschwitz that skulks at the heart of this book, an obscenity obscenely weaponized by Menasse (who is of part-Jewish descent) in a way that must be read in the light of his family background (his father was evacuated to England from Vienna after the Anschluss, one grandmother died in Theresienstadt, the other was shot by the Nazis) but that can principally be put down to a Eurofundamentalism so intense that it has become detached from reason and basic decency. 

The central conceit running through The Capital is a plan to put former concentration-camp inmates “at the very center” of “jubilee celebrations” marking the 50th anniversary of the establishment, in its current form, of the EU’s principal executive arm, the Com-mission. The rationale for this scheme, maintains Martin Susman, a senior Commission official, is to secure the Commission’s status as a “moral authority” (rather than the “apparatus of a mere economic community”) entrusted with the task of ensuring “that a breach of European civilization such as Auschwitz [will] never occur again.” More than that, it is an opportunity to deliver the message that the logic of nationalism leads inexorably to an Auschwitz. The corollary of that argument, warns another official working for an EU institution with a very different set of objectives, is that “the Commission’s moral duty” must be “to work for the overthrow of the nation state.” 

And Auschwitz returns to center-stage in another of the book’s subplots, when an Austrian professor tells an EU-sponsored “reflection group” (Menasse has a wonderful feel for both the clumsiness and the subtlety of the language of Eurocracy) that Oświęcim/Auschwitz should be the Union’s new capital, “a city of the future, and at the same time the city that can never forget. ‘Auschwitz: never again’ is the foundation stone upon which the project of European unification was built.” 

Historically, this is nonsense. The Holocaust, which was, for various reasons — including the need to anchor West Germany into the anti-Soviet bloc — distinctly downplayed by many of those in charge of the western side of the Iron Curtain in the 1950s and early 1960s, had very little to do with the gestation of what became the EU. That said, it would normally be reasonable either to distance Menasse, a writer of fiction after all, from the words of his creations, and/or to assume that, as a satirist, he meant there to be more than a touch of A Modest Proposal about some of the more outlandish words that he is putting in their mouths. 

Unfortunately, the border between Menasse’s fact and his fiction is rather more porous than that. In Enraged Citizens, a work of nonfiction, he boosts his case for the EU with arguments similar to those used by the fictional characters in The Capital in their efforts to launch the concentration-camp-themed jubilee and in propounding the idea of Auschwitz as the EU’s Brasilia. More damagingly still, in The Capital, Menasse has Susman assert that the centrality of the Holocaust to the Brussels project was why the first Commission president, Germany’s Walter Hallstein, “gave his inaugural speech in Auschwitz” (a claim repeated by Menasse in circumstances outside the arguably safe harbor provided by a novel), which would have been impressive had it been true, but it was not. There was no such speech; nor did Hallstein make a number of other remarks opposed to the nation-state and attributed to him in statements Menasse has made elsewhere. The discovery of these, uh, slips caused some controversy in Germany, but was not enough to stop the award to Menasse of another prestigious German literary prize earlier this year. 

The noble lie or, as Menasse sees it, the higher, more “coherent” (stimmig) truth, trumps inconvenient reality. This might account for Menasse’s cavalier approach to British GDP data or, for that matter, his allegation (made in a recent interview with the Financial Times) that “Margaret Thatcher started the Falklands war just to win an election.” It might also explain why, with the notable exception of those reliable contrarians at Spiked, there has been so little coverage in the Anglo-Saxon world of this most socially acceptable bien pensant’s inventive attitude to accuracy. 

Yet Menasse has a sharp eye and a sharper pen. Notwithstanding his myth-making, Menasse’s depiction of the EU is lively, often amusing, and replete with small, and not so small, truths, quite a few of which will be uncomfortable reading for those running the Brussels machine — but then telling uncomfortable truths is what a court jester is supposed to do.

This article appears as “Crass Capital” in the August 26, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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