Category: Fiction

Robert Menasse
Die Hauptstadt
[The Capital]


Slapstick, Tragedy and Europe

Robert Menasse (b. 1954, Vienna) is one of Austria's most eminent contemporary authors and a passionate European. He has repeatedly defended the European Union in his polemical writing, while also expressing concern that the stability of the alliance is being endangered by the return of nationalism, competitive thinking, power struggles, petty bureaucracy and isolationism. In his essay, "Der Europäische Landbote," published in 2012, Menasse questioned whether the European Commission "wasn’t the stuff of a novel." He answered the question with the brilliant novel, "Die Hauptstadt" [The Capital] which won the German Book Prize in 2017, topped the bestseller lists, and was the subject of lively debates in the German-speaking world

After years of doing research in Brussels, the author found a form of representation reminiscent of Robert Altman's classic episodic film, "Short Cuts:" rather than concentrating on a single protagonist, he mirrors the multi-headed institution by focusing on a number of ‘players’ in Brussels’ labyrinthic organization, who meet by chance or plan, forge alliances, battle one another and engage in intrigues. Everybody is pursuing their own narrow-minded interests, in fact, there is no common ground for anybody to truly relate and therein lies the satirical hyperbole that makes Robert Menasse's portrait of the EU such a thoroughly enjoyable read.

An upcoming major event—the round anniversary of the founding of the EU—kicks off the merry-go-round of activity. Fenia Xenopoulou, the Cypriot Head of the Directorate-General for Culture, calls for original proposals for the ‘Big Jubilee Project’. While on a business trip to Poland, her Austrian consultant Martin Susman, son of a pig farmer and brother of a pig lobbyist, comes up with the idea of making Auschwitz the center of the festivities: the site of Germany’s crimes against humanity—the ultimate symbol of "never again"—should serve as a reminder to overcome nationalistic sentiments and individual state interests.

This macabre and curious constellation becomes the motor of a campaign that Menasse portrays with a keenly analytic knowledge of history and a brilliant sense of comedy. A stray pig wandering the streets of Brussels kicks off the action and appears throughout the story as a vivid and powerful running gag.

Caught in the mill of the morally charged, endlessly debated Babylonian handling of the project are a Holocaust survivor, who was taken to an old age home in Brussels, and an emeritus of economics, who wants to build the ideal "Capital of Europe" on the Auschwitz site. Both of their paths cross at the military cemetery, where the resistance fighter Brunfaut has been buried. He is the grandfather of a criminal investigator, who discovers a Vatican conspiracy in the midst of solving a murder case.

Menasse masterfully holds the strings of all these wild connections, while drawing a complex moral picture in which slapstick and tragedy blend vertiginously with the earnestness of the European vision and lampooning its dismantling. Beneath it all is a subtle and ingenious reflection of another great European epic, "Man without Qualities," Robert Musil’s swan song to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy - a portent for the EU that hopefully will remain fiction.
Kristina Maidt-Zinke

By Kristina Maidt-Zinke, 08.05.2018

​Kristina Maidt-Zinke is a literary and music critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and writes reviews for Die Zeit.

Translated by Zaia Alexander