The Capital by Robert Menasse (transl. Jamie Bulloch): Better in than out

Cover image I’m sharing the last stop on The Capital‘s blog tour with Reader Dad. I’m not one for blog tours – this may well be both my first and last – but I couldn’t say no to this one. If you’ve been reading this blog for the last couple of years, you’ll be in no doubt as to which side of the Brexit divide I belong. Robert Menasse’s sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated faults before bringing it back to the values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club.

The Capital opens with a pig running through the streets of Brussels, catching the astonished eyes of many of its characters. Martin Susman, who will conceive the idea for the ill-fated Jubilee Project, spots it from his apartment window. Auschwitz survivor Dave de Vriend sees it just as he’s about to leave his apartment for the last time. Fenia Xenopoulou catches sight of it from the restaurant where she’s hoping to finangle a transfer to another department. When Martin returns from Auschwitz, shocked at its commercialisation, he hits on an idea to rejuvenate the ideals of the Commission via the jubilee celebration he’s been asked to devise, putting the camp at its centre in counterpoint to the populist nationalism which has infected Europe since 2008. Fenia spots what she thinks is a winner but in a masterly piece of out-maneuvering, finds herself on the back foot and the celebration plans in tatters. Meanwhile, Inspector Brunfaut is trying to track down the pig, now a media star, while puzzling over why he’s been told to drop a murder investigation and Matek Oswiecki tries to dodge the consequences of what may well have been a botched assassination. These many and varied characters crisscross each other’s paths over a long hot summer in which migrants are heading for Germany.

A multitude of shifting character perspectives coupled with a good deal of information about EU institutions to absorb results in a slow start but patience pays off with The Capital. Swipes are taken at bloated bureaucracy, political manouevering and empire building but ultimately, it’s the founding values of the European Commission which are at the heart of this novel, that never again should Europe be faced with the horrors threatened by populist nationalism. Professor Erhart gives full voice to these ideals in a speech which horrifies his think tank audience, peopled with the self-important and self-interested, and would send Brexiteers running and screaming for the door. It’s a wide-ranging novel, at times wryly funny at others almost slapstick, but like all good satire it has some very serious points to make both about the EU and the forces that have taken hold in Europe since the financial crash. Rather like the institution its satirizing, The Capital is not without faults – some of its threads remained tangled for me – but there’s much to enjoy, bittersweet though it is in more ways than one.

If you’d like to catch up with previous posts on the blog tour, including Lizzy Siddal’s interview with The Capital‘s translator, Jaime Bulloch, here’s a list of links:

Winstondad’s Blog

David’s Book World

Nudge Books

Lizzy’s Literary Life

7 thoughts on “The Capital by Robert Menasse (transl. Jamie Bulloch): Better in than out”

  1. Do you have a feeling that the tangled bits which remain could be untangled if you were to reread, or that they were deliberately left tangled, or that they were simply some unclear elements in an otherwise decipherable novel? I love complicated stories. Sometimes I don’t mind the odd tangle remaining (I’m not a fan of satin-ribbon-too-neat resolutions). But I do like to feel as though the author had every tiny detail sorted (even if I missed a bit as a reader).

      1. Oh, that’s an interesting idea. Good writers do allow the structure to reflect their theme, so perhaps this is another way of leaving readers rootless (as, for instance, in stories which are deliberately fragmented which are told by characters with a mental illness which leaves their minds and view of the world fragmented).

  2. This sounds fun! I really like Jamie Bulloch as a translator too. I’ve had to ration how much concious thought I give Brexit (ie not every waking hour, just a few hours a day, mainly given over to crying or swearing at the news) but I’ll include this in the ration 😀

    1. I know exactly what you mean. This one’s a welcome bit of light relief which steers well clear of the B-word. Jamie Bulloch’s great, isn’t it he. Up there with Charlotte Collins.

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