Meike's Reviews > The Capital

The Capital by Robert Menasse
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really liked it
bookshelves: austria, 2019-read

Here it is: The first major novel about the inner workings of European politics in our capital, Brussels. While the tone is often light and ironic, this book is whip-smart when it dissects the many conflict lines that we are struggling with in the EU, on a continent steeped in blood, where history is always also personal history and different views collide all. the. time. Democracy means to acknowledge and handle conflict, and to do that is sometimes hard - so hard in fact, that some people seem to think that nationalism, isolationism, or authoritarianism are the solution (yeah, why not repeat the same mistakes ad inifinitum? *sigh*). But the majority of EU citizens, especially young people all over the continent, want the European project to succeed - the EU didn't receive the Nobel Peace Prize for nothing.

Menasse, an Austrian, turns the people within the apparatus - who in the news mostly remain anonymous and are referred to as "bureaucrats", "lobbyists", and "experts" - into the protagonists of this tale. They have different backgrounds, their families are affected differently by European history (there is an Italian count, a Greek Cypriot, a Holocaust survivor, a Czech EU worker whose sister marries a right-wing, anti-EU politician and many others), they represent national governments or entities with different interests and many work within EU departments with conflicting aims (this might at first sound surprising, but it's normal even on the national and the state level: The Minister for Economy often has different aims than the Minister for the Environment, for example). On top of that, there's always the human factor: Many characters are in career politics, they have personal goals and power tactics - this is European "House of Cards".

There are two main narrative strands that hold the story together and connect the cast of characters: The Big Jubilee Project that aims to improve the image of the Commission, and a conflict over a trade deal with China concerning pigs - so we are dealing with bread-and-butter trade policy and the PR aspect of the EU. Anyone who is familiar with the inner workings of politics (on any level) will recognize classic dynamics here, but they are complicated by the factor of different countries joining in. Menasse's genius is to fill these discussions, that some people might suspect to be dry, with life by showing what's at stake for the individuals involved, how all of this relates to their personal history, how they are torn between the European mission (most of them are no cynics, but believers), national politics and personal vanity, and how the strict bureaucratic rules can deform people and stifle the vision that is so desperately needed.

Sometimes Menasse is overreaching a little: I wouldn't have needed the whole "criminal conspiracy" storyline, and the actual pig which might be running through or just reported to be running through Brussels is the reason why I refrained from reading this book for almost two years (in German, there is the term "eine neue Sau durchs Dorf treiben" (to chase a new sow through the village), which means that a topic gets hyped up and then dropped for a new topic, thus creating circles of discussions without any consequences). But all in all, this book is a real feat: We need stories like that to fill abstract concepts with life and stimulate discussion.

So I'm actually fine with this winning the German Book Prize 2017. And you can check out the #Europa22 campaign on twitter: Menasse lets one of his protagonists suggest European instead of national passports, and the Austrian band Bilderbuch just started a viral pro-EU campaign that features just that - all kinds of people already take part, from the German foreign minister to late night host Jan Böhmermann. You can also join the movement: https://bilderbucheuropa.love/
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Reading Progress

February 11, 2019 – Shelved
February 11, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
February 18, 2019 – Started Reading
February 18, 2019 – Shelved as: austria
February 19, 2019 – Shelved as: 2019-read
February 19, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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Alexandra Echt du liest das auf Englisch? Ich wunder mich 😊


Meike Alexandra wrote: "Echt du liest das auf Englisch? Ich wunder mich 😊"

Hat nen ganz profanen Grund, Alexandra: Letztes Jahr hab ich versucht, ein deutsches Rezensionsexemplar zu bekommen - hat nicht geklappt. Jetzt hab ich aber ein englisches Rezensionsexemplar - dann les ich's halt auf Englisch! :-) (Bei Lanchesters "The Wall" ist dasselbe unter umgekehrten Vorzeichen passiert, da hab ich dann die deutsche Übersetzung "Die Mauer" gelesen! :-))


message 3: by Matt (last edited Feb 19, 2019 08:49AM) (new)

Matt Ganz nett, die Idee:



message 4: by Meike (last edited Feb 19, 2019 09:03AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Meike Matt wrote: "Ganz nett, die Idee: ..."

Hahaha, wunderschönes Exemplar, Matt!!!! :-) Da mach ich gleich mit: description


message 5: by Matt (new)

Matt Super. Die Nummern werden offenbar fortlaufend vergeben. In den 9 Minuten zwischen uns beiden haben sich also noch 405 weitere EU-Bürger/Bürgerinnen einen neuen Pass besorgt.


Meike Matt wrote: "Super. Die Nummern werden offenbar fortlaufend vergeben. In den 9 Minuten zwischen uns beiden haben sich also noch 405 weitere EU-Bürger/Bürgerinnen einen neuen Pass besorgt."

Das ist mir gar nicht aufgefallen - das ist ja super!!! Ich hoffe, die Zahlen steigen weiter!


message 7: by Anna (new) - added it

Anna This looks promising! And love the EU passport idea, haven't heard of it. I'm still waiting for a common Schengen visa, which would make even more sense...


Meike It's a good book, Anna!


message 9: by Anna (new) - added it

Anna Oh, I just read your review and I want to read it immediately!


message 10: by Sean (new) - added it

Sean Would you say this book leans more towards literature or more towards a political manifesto?
Between your review and one I read in Time Magazine it looks like this is worthwhile as fiction but with the ability to teach a reader about the workings of Europe as a continent.


message 11: by Meike (last edited Jul 27, 2019 10:49PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Meike Sean wrote: "Would you say this book leans more towards literature or more towards a political manifesto?
Between your review and one I read in Time Magazine it looks like this is worthwhile as fiction but with..."


I would clearly say that this is literature, Sean: Menasse is very passionate about the EU, and he believes that we should all work towards a better Union, but this book is a fictional reflection of the problems the EU tries to contain, and the author employs a lot of satire and not-all-too-plausible plot points in order to illustrate his ideas. The story does revolve around EU politics and reflects current political issues and the repercussions of European history when it comes to the relationship between nations, but Menasse does not explain how the EU as a political entity works, and he doesn't make suggestions how to reform it - in order to truly appreciate his commentary, I think it is necessary to have some prior knowledge about the EU (I saw some reviews that completely missed the nuance and were just like: Oh, Menasse demasks how bad EU politics is - this says more about the reviewers than about the book).

I think what the book does point out to readers - Europeans and non-Europeans alike - is that the European project, born out of a 2,000-year history of war and conflict, requires a lot of patience, dedication and work, because the EU aims to give a political framwework to conflict and to find compromises or even consensus while facing various different national and personal interests - this is very hard to do, but it absolutely should be done. I know that many Americans think that the EU is mainly and economic framework, like NAFTA or something, which is not true - Menasse makes that point very clear as he talks quite a lot about cultural and historical dimensions, and in this respect, he does teach the reader about Europe as a continent and the struggles we are dealing with.


message 12: by Sean (new) - added it

Sean Yes the 70 years of peace between European nation's is an amazing accomplishment.
I am a non-European and I think I know very little about everything the EU does. Much of the news we get in America about it are stories on the absurdities of the bureaucracy. Also, it seems to me that there is conflict between centralized and local decision-making. We have the same types of conflicts here.
Thanks for your reply. I think this information will help me approach this book with a proper perspective!


message 13: by Meike (last edited Jul 29, 2019 02:34AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Meike Sean wrote: "Yes the 70 years of peace between European nation's is an amazing accomplishment.
I am a non-European and I think I know very little about everything the EU does. Much of the news we get in America..."


You're right: The conflicts between centralized and local decision making are typical in any political entity that is made up of different parts, be it between the state and the national level, or between the national and the EU level - unfortunately, just like the people who blame "Berlin" or "Washington", the people who blame "Brussels" often fail to acknowledge that the decision-makers on the EU level were elected by the nations, just like the national decision-makers were chosen by the people in the states. The EU as a supranational organization of states (the only one in the world) holds a lot of power, harmonizes national laws and distributes billions of Euro for regional development in order to improve the economic structures and the standards of living all over the continent, so there's a lot at stake for the individual nations, which frequently leads to disagreement, but the EU is an arena where conflicts can be resolved peacefully. There's also quite a lot of bureaucracy, especially when it comes to the harmonization of regulations and laws, and it's very hard to secure legal certainty if wou're dealing with 28 different legal system (plus the state laws within these nations) without overdoing it with all the forms and written petitions.

I hope you'll enjoy the book, it always makes me very happy when non-Europeans are interested in what we are doing over here! :-)


message 14: by Sean (new) - added it

Sean Meike wrote: "it's very hard to secure legal certainty if wou're dealing with 28 different legal system (plus the state laws within these nations) without overdoing it with all the forms and written petitions.
So well-said! I think in democracy people forget that it's a representational system. So your personal desires will not be heard every time because participants represent many people concurrently. A completely direct democracy would probably be very chaotic so a representational system is the best we can work with.
I do believe I will enjoy this book. I have read fiction that takes place in European locations but nothing I can recall that encompasses it as a whole (maybe some war stories). The closest I can think of is Birds Without Wings, but that is historical, not contemporary. I will be sure to leave a review. Maybe you'll see that when I do.


Meike Sean wrote: "I do believe I will enjoy this book. I have read fiction that takes place in European locations but nothing I can recall..."

Oh, I hadn't heard about that book yet, thanks for the tipp! I am looking forward to reading your review of "The Capital"!


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