Translated by Jamie Bulloch
MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)
There’s a pig on the loose!
And so begins one of the strangest, most enjoyable books you’ll come across this year. Part crime story, part examination of the different bodies that make up the European Union, all satire that totters, at times, on the very edge of farce, Robert Menasse’s latest novel, The Capital, transports the reader to Brussels, and gives us a glimpse of the not-always-well-oiled machine that is the European Commission and the theoretical “EU”.
The novel opens on a surreal scene, as a pig runs loose through Sainte-Catherine, the centre of Brussels and home of the European institutions. By the end of the prologue we have met most of the cast of characters, some of whom are employed by the European Commission, many of whom aren’t; at this point the only thing they have in common is that they were in Sainte-Catherine when the pig was running loose. During this brief period of time, a holocaust survivor leaves his home before the building he has lived in for years is scheduled for demolition; a man is murdered in the Hotel Atlas, and his murderer manages to escape into the crowd; tourists endlessly snap photos; and European officials at various levels go about their daily business.
From this quietly farcical opening, the plot of The Capital grows more and more surreal the further we read. At the heart of the story is the planning of a celebration to mark the jubilee of the formation of the European Commission. Here petty rivalries and bureaucracy combine into a game of strategy between those who don’t want the work but do want the glory, and those who do want the work – and the exposure that it will bring – but are well aware of the dire consequences of getting it wrong. When one low-level official suggests tying the Commission’s formation to the liberation of Auschwitz, everyone jumps on board. At least, until someone starts to dig into the practicalities, and someone else wonders how the message might play to the public.
Strangely, given the subject matter, Menasse’s new novel is extremely engaging. Told in an upbeat voice, it takes us inside the European institutions and give us a brief glimpse of the chaos that reigns within. Brimming with stereotypes and peopled – for the most part – by caricatures, The Capital is the sort of literary event that doesn’t come along very often. Despite the larger-than-life nature of these characters, Menasse makes sure we’re invested in each and every one, filling us with a desperate need to find out how each one’s story plays out.
Menasse also touches on the strange fact that many “ordinary” people are unaware of just what the “European Union” is, what different institutions exist, and what their purposes are. This is never more obvious than in Britain on the eve of Brexit, something that Menasse scathingly touches on during the course of the story. In a way, The Capital is a brief history lesson, and comes across as very balanced: Menasse presents us with the example of Europe’s pig farmers, and the ridiculous arrangements that need to be put in place in order to open up trade with China, but he is also careful to point out the good that the Commission and Parliament do, and the positive things the Union brings to the table. The reader comes away from The Capital more informed than when they went in, but the author leaves us to make our own decision on the merits or otherwise of EU membership.
Of course, it’s impossible to write about the European Union without briefly looking at Europe’s nominal capital, Brussels. While much of the action centres around Sainte-Catherine and the Commission’s headquarters, Menasse does give us brief glimpses of the wider city. He manages to find the perfect description for a city known for its comic book murals and long history with bandes desinées:
In all the nooks and crannies of this city the facades of buildings and firewalls were painted right up to the roofs with comic-book images, copies of, and variations on, drawings by Hergé or Morris, animals by Bonom or works by younger artists who regarded themselves as heirs to these legends. If Brussels was an open book, it was a graphic novel.
Translation duties on The Capital fall to the always-reliable Jamie Bulloch, and he has done an excellent job here, keeping Menasse’s dry wit intact and making this a book that’s a pleasure to read, and one that’s difficult to put down.
By no means the type of book you’d expect to find here at Reader Dad (yes there’s a criminal element, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, and serves as little more than an excuse to introduce the wonderful Inspector Brunfaut), The Capital defies categorisation but is a book that grips the reader from that surreal opening sentence. Required reading for anyone with a passing interest in Europe and the European Union (do you hear me, Britain?), it’s a glorious satire of an entire continent that will have you laughing out loud and shaking your head in equal measure. Up there with Timor Vermes’ Look Who’s Back, this is a book that will stick in your head for a long time after you’ve read it and is, quite simply, not to be missed.