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The Capital by Robert Menasse
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bookshelves: contemporary-fiction, german-fiction, fiction-in-translation, humour-and-satire, netgalley

Robert Menasse’s Die Hauptstadt, winner of the 2017 German Book Prize, has recently being published by MacLehose Press in an English translation by Jamie Bulloch. In this incarnation, the novel’s title is rendered as The Capital. This name, of course, a faithful and literal translation from the German, but I wonder whether it was also meant as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Karl Marx’s epic tome. Indeed, political and economic theories also loom large in Menasse’s Capital, except that they are presented within the context of a zany novel about the workings of the European Commission.

Die Hauptstadt has been described as the first great novel about the European Union. It could well be the case. I don’t profess to be some expert in Continental literature, of course, but the only other novel I know which uses the European Commission as a backdrop is “What happens in Brussels stays in Brussels” by the Maltese author Ġuże’ Stagno. And that’s more a satire on Maltese politics and the Maltese representatives in the EU, than a novel on the European institutions themselves.

Menasse’s work takes a wider view. Its central plot element is a “Big Jubilee Project” which is being organised by the Commission as a celebration of the anniversary of its founding. Ambitious EU official Fenia Xenapoulou hopes that this will be an occasion to improve the image of the Commission, whilst providing her with her big break. Fenia’s Austrian assistant Martin Susman comes up with the noble idea of roping in Holocaust survivors, as a reminder that the European Union was built to ensure that Auschwitz would “never happen again”. Unsurprisingly, as the organizers will discover to their chagrin, national interests and behind-the-scenes lobbying make the success of such an ambitious celebration unlikely.

Much as I enjoyed this novel, I must say that it took me some time to finally get immersed in it. This is certainly not the fault of the translation – I’ve previously enjoyed Bulloch’s translations of The Mussel-Feast and Look Who’s Back, and as in those novels, The Capital is rendered in prose that is idiomatic and flowing. I believe the problem is more with its sheer number of characters (a recent theatrical adaptation involved 7 actors playing about 20 roles) – in the initial chapters especially, I thought that an introductory dramatis personae would have been helpful as a guide to the somewhat bewildering international cast.

Another issue is with the proliferation of seemingly unrelated subplots involving, amongst other narrative complications: a pig on the loose in Brussels; a retired Professor preparing to deliver a final, memorable speech; a Holocaust survivor coming to terms with his impending death; a number of potential, never-fully-realised love stories and, more weirdly, a crime investigation which seems to have been borrowed from a Dan Brown thriller. More frustratingly, some of these loose ends are never tied up.

In other words, The Capital is a sprawling novel which could have done with some tightening. However, its polyphonic narrative is, in itself, a good metaphor for the European Union, this patchwork of nations and cultures which, somehow, managed to build a future of hope from the cinders of a continent ravaged by war. Indeed, this novel, despite its several comic and surreal elements, provides Menasse with the springboard to present his views on the European Union. Despite the evident shortcomings, the bureaucracy and the backstabbing which seem to characterize the working of its institutions, especially the Commission, the central idea(l) of the EC remains a laudable one – the creation of a supra-national body to keep extreme nationalism in check, in order to ensure that the horrors of the 20th Century do no happen again. In the age of Brexit and strident populism, its themes urgently relevant.

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Reading Progress

February 11, 2019 – Shelved
February 11, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
February 25, 2019 – Started Reading
February 25, 2019 –
page 28
March 9, 2019 –
page 116
March 10, 2019 –
page 156
March 16, 2019 –
page 235
March 17, 2019 – Finished Reading
March 18, 2019 – Shelved as: contemporary-fiction
March 18, 2019 – Shelved as: german-fiction
March 18, 2019 – Shelved as: fiction-in-translation
March 18, 2019 – Shelved as: humour-and-satire
March 18, 2019 – Shelved as: netgalley

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