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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Capital

Robert Menasse

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To purchase The Capital

Title: The Capital
Author: Robert Menasse
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 417 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Capital - US
The Capital - UK
The Capital - Canada
La capitale - France
Die Hauptstadt - Deutschland
La capitale - Italia
La capital - España

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyably story-full -- and good on bureaucracies -- but can't manage all its ambitions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 16/2/2019 .
Foreign Affairs . 1-2/2020 Andrew Moravcsik
The Guardian A 28/2/2019 Mark Lawson
Le Monde . 4/1/2019 Nicolas Weill
NZZ . 8/9/2017 Paul Jandl
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/10/2019 Fintan O'Toole
The NY Times A 11/6/2019 Dwight Garner
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/6/2019 Nicholas Kulish
The Spectator . 16/2/2019 Boyd Tonkin
Le Temps . 25/1/2019 Isabelle Rüf
Time . 24/6/2019 Andrew R. Chow
The Times . 1/3/2019 Siobhan Murphy
TLS . 26/3/2019 Adrian Tahourdin
Wall St. Journal . 14/6/2019 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today A Winter/2020 Ulf Zimmermann
Die Zeit . 6/9/2017 Andreas Isenschmid

  Review Consensus:

  Mostly very positive

  From the Reviews:
  • "(H)e created what might seem impossible: a readable novel of Brussels. The Capital is a mischievous yet profound story about storytelling; about the art of shaping a narrative by finding resonances in the messy stuff of life. (...) Among other things, The Capital is a bold novelisation of Mr Habermasís thinking about Europe. (...) The novel also captures the Habermasian warning that forgoing a pan-European narrative in this way leaves the emotive, storytelling side of European politics to blood-and-soil nationalists (.....) Revelling in the differences and clashes between the nationalities that rub shoulders in Brussels, the book also embodies Mr Habermasís view that Europe does not need a homogenised culture to build a coherent federation. Rather, it suggests that common civic and moral principles, derived from the lessons of history, can provide a basis for supranational democracy." - The Economist

  • "Menasse gets many details of the EU just right. His cruel caricature of the technocratic, self-important, and sometimes petty bureaucratic culture of the commission is largely accurate. (...) If The Capital does not qualify as great literature, it is worth reading for another reason: to gain fresh insights into the way Europeans perceive the EU's future. (...) Yet there is little reason to put much stock in his vision of Europe's past, present, or future. What is most glaring, Menasse gets the EU's history wrong." - Andrew Moravcsik, Foreign Affairs

  • "The Capital delivers, within a brilliant satirical fiction, thoughtful and instructive analysis of both the weaknesses in the EU that galvanise leavers and the strengths that motivate remainers. (...) Lacking German, I canít assess the accuracy of Jamie Bullochís translation, but the English prose has a panache and clarity rare in exported literature. (...) Readers may understandably feel that a novel about the EU is the last thing they need just now; but if so they will miss a first-class read." - Mark Lawson, The Guardian

  • "Es ist ein Spiegelkabinett aus Geschichte und Gegenwart, aus Tragik und Komik, aus Banalem und Bedeutendem. (...) Nicht umsonst erinnert Die Hauptstadt an vielen Stellen an Robert Musils Mann ohne Eigenschaften. Explizit oder implizit." - Paul Jandl, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The Capital is thus in part an exploration of its own viability, a testing of the adequacy of literary realism to the task of understanding and presenting the large forces at work in contemporary Europe. (...) Perhaps it is appropriate that The Capital, for all its energy and brilliance, its intellectual ambition and literary skill, is saturated with uncertainty. It feels, in the end, less of a grand statement and more of a voyage into literary melancholia, less realist and more gothic. It is a haunted book." - Fintan O'Toole, The New York Review of Books

  • "If you tasked an excellent writer with turning a tall stack of recent issues of The Economist into a novel, you might get The Capital. Somehow I mean this as high praise. (...) Perhaps what we have in The Capital is a great murder mystery. (...) Itís possible this is a great Holocaust-minded novel for a new millennium. (...) In the end I think The Capital may be a major book about coincidences, of linked and overlapping meanings. (...) This is a deeply humane novel, a novel for adults. It carries the wisdom and weight and weariness of late middle age." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "Coincidences place the different plots in geographic proximity rather than fully integrating them. (...) If there is a central plot, it revolves around a jubilee celebration for the European Commissionís 50th anniversary declaring Auschwitz its birthplace. Just how amusing you find that conceit will largely determine how much you enjoy the book, winner of the prestigious German Book Prize. I was largely immune to its charms. (...) I wish Menasse had ignored his Dan Brown assassin, left out his Poirot and dug deeper into the pig farmers and their swine. The Capital works mostly as a testament to the persistence of personal and nationalist ambitions rather than supranational ones, another bad omen for the poor E.U." - Nicholas Kulish, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Menasse has sly fun with the 'Babylonian gibberish' of the Commission and the Yes, Minister ruses of its staff. With its zest, pace and wit, Jamie Bullochís translation serves him splendidly. Intermittently, The Capital soars above the citadel of intrigue to give a 'bird's-eye perspective' from the past. It tempers satire with sympathy for the battered dream of unified Europe as 'the realm of freedom' and solvent of national hatreds. Yet its snaking plot, and scheming mandarins, gleefully run away with the novel" - Boyd Tonkin, The Spectator

  • "La capitale allie hardiment le tableau amusant des eurocrates d’aujourd’hui à la remémoration des atrocités du siècle passé. (...) On peut faire de La capitale une lecture politique, y voir un plaidoyer pour une autre Europe, une satire des institutions, un tableau de société." - Isabelle Rüf, Le Temps

  • "The 400-page novel, set primarily in the E.U.ís de facto capital, Brussels, is neither breezy nor orderly. But it presents a brutally funny and exhaustive tableau of both a continent in transition and the organization straining to hold it together. (...) The plot occasionally gets bogged down in granular detail. But Menasse writes with a wry, self-deprecating touch. He turns what might have been a dry lecture into a teeming epic that brings to multitextured life a continent undergoing an identity crisis." - Andrew R. Chow, Time

  • "(R)eaders hoping to find out what really goes on behind Berlaymont’s impressive glass and chrome façades might feel a little frustrated; after all, Culture is marginal to the real business of the EU. (...) (T)he real problem with this curate’s egg of a novel is that it appears unsure whether to praise the EU or to bury it, and it rather ends up doing neither." - Adrian Tahourdin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(T)he jumbled, cacophonous narrative of The Capital is made up mostly of arguments. (...) But despite Mr. Menasseís pessimism -- you close the book convinced that the only thing keeping the EU alive is the same inertia that dooms it -- The Capital isnít a polemic." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Yes, Menasse has an agenda: more unity in the EU, less of the recrudescent chauvinism, more help for poorer neighbor countries and for refugees. Perhaps, too, such a more ideal union should have a capital more reflective of these ideals. It is this that his title refers to, not Brussels, but weíll leave that quixotic errand for the reader to enjoy. While his critique of these political failures is trenchant, its satirical delivery is wryly engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny." - Ulf Zimmermann, World Literature Today

  • "Das ist ein elegant geschriebener, fabelhaft gebauter, pointen- und gedankenreicher Roman. (...) (W)as auch bleibt, ist ein mit Witz, Wissen und einem Feuerwerk treffender Formulierungen dargebotenes Alltagspanorama der Hauptstadt Brüssel. Über den als erzählerischen Brandbeschleuniger eingebauten Krimiplot kann man sich streiten. (...) Ein vergnüglicher Pageturner ist Die Hauptstadt allemal. Es schwebt freilich über allem ein biedermeierlicher Hauch von Brüssel light." - Andreas Isenschmid, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The setting of most of The Capital is Brussels -- but the city's position as Belgian capital is incidental: this is a novel of the main seat of the European Union and many of its institutions; eventually, even the idea of re-placement of the locale comes up, of the possibility or need to, symbolically and otherwise, re-situate the heart (and minds) of the great European experiment. Shuffling between a number of characters and storylines -- including forays deeper into actual European Union territories --, Menasse's sweeping novel tries to capture the European moment and experiment, and the bureaucracy charged with sustaining it; the novel's various strands might seem distinct and separate, but there are connections throughout: each chapter comes with an epigraph-sentence that functions as a motto of sorts, and the final one is the observation that: "Something cannot fall apart without there having been connections", a notion that has guided much of the story. For Menasse it is all of a piece, the vision of a messy, frustrating, and flawed but still worthwhile greater and united Europe, and the various forces hindering the full realization of it.
       The novel opens with what turns out to be a running gag, a pig on the loose in the streets of the city. It, and reports of sightings, pop up repeatedly -- but the pig remains elusive. Another storyline is that of the mysterious murder of an unidentified man (who had three passports, in three different names ...): not only is the police inspector, Brunfaut, who was in charge of the investigation told to drop it, but the considerable (if mysterious) powers that be essentially make everything about the case disappear (and, for good measure, Brunfaut is told it's time for him to take his holiday allowance, and steer clear of the office for a while ...); meanwhile, the responsible hitman goes on the run not so much from the authorities but his employers, as he realizes something went wrong with that particular job. (Among the books odder twists is found in the answers to this mystery, notably who that employer is .....) Then there is aging Holocaust survivor David de Vriend, transitioning to his new environment, the Maison Hanssens retirement home.
       Several of the main characters are part of the EU bureaucracy, notably Greek Cypriot Fenia Xenopoulou, who had worked her way up from humble circumstances to get a first rate education, with a degree from the London School of Economics and a postgrad at Stanford, only to find herself assigned to the Directorate-General for Culture -- "a meaningless ministry without a budget or any weight in the Commission, without influence or power" -- and all she wants is a way out, to basically any other department, just not Culture, to get her career back on track. Another member of that Directorate-General is Austrian Martin Susman -- whose older brother Florian took over the family farm and turned it into: "the largest pig-production business in Austria, indeed one of the largest in Europe", and who is annoyed by EU policies that prevent Europe's pig farmers from negotiating en bloc with the valuable Chinese market, instead pitting member-country against member-country. Meanwhile, there's Professor Alois Erhard, an outside expert invited to be part of: "the 'New Pact for Europe' Reflection Group", who has his own ideas about how to advance the dream of European unification but finds himself distinctly the odd man out.
       The story shifts back and forth among these (and quite a few more) characters, much of the action often only peripherally EU-connected: there's a lot of wandering through the city, notably by de Vriend and Erhard, including quite a bit of cemetery-visiting. Inspector Brunfaut has some medical issues to deal with, and Martin takes some time off to help out his brother, who gets involved in a life-changing car accident (far away from Brussels). And the hitman tries to get his bearings -- and get out of the mess he thinks he's in -- back in his native Poland.
       If not quite all then at least many roads here lead to -- and from -- Auschwitz, the site of the former Nazi concentration camp. De Vriend is one of its last survivors and Martin is sent there as representative of the E.U. Commission for the annual 27 January celebration of the camp's liberation, for example. And when Martin is asked to come up with a concept for the 'Big Jubilee Project', to celebrate the anniversary of the European Commission, the "politically independent executive arm" of the European Union, his idea is to tie it in with Auschwitz, presenting: "Auschwitz as the birthplace of the European Commission".
       His reasoning is that:

Nothing in history has brought together the diverse identities, mentalities and cultures of Europe, the religions, the different so-called races and former hostile ideologies, nothing has created such a fundamental solidarity of all people as did the experience of Auschwitz.
       Fenia's first reaction is, sensibly: "It's insane. What's wrong with you, Martin ? Are you ill ?" But the European Commission has a popularity-problem -- its 'corporate image': "as the last Eurobarometer poll had shown, had plummeted" -- and so some outside-the-box thinking seems called for, highlighting the importance of the European Commission, and setting it apart from the other EU institutions. The idea of the project is that:
this was about the Commission rather that "the E.U.", it was about stripping the Commission of its image as an institution of unworldly bureaucrats and presenting it as the guardian of the lesson of history and human rights.
       So Martin's idea is taken up -- at least for a while. Unsurprisingly, however, after a while it sinks in that this is maybe not the best plan -- though not quite for the seemingly obvious reasons. Rather, it's how the message would ultimately be seen that leads to it being nipped not too far from the bud:
To infer from the trite "Auschwitz: never again" the need to "overthrow nationalism and ultimately overthrow the nation state" and to try to sell that as the moral imperative and political mission of the European Union was something the heads of state and government could never accept.
       Indeed, as is even clearer now, just a few years after Menasse's novel is set, national identity interests continue to trump (and undermine) whatever benefits larger community might bring -- even when (as with those pig-negotiations with China) the benefits all around would be much greater if the member-nations presented themselves and acted as a truly united front.
       Martin's Auschwitz-project fails, as does another proposal that falls on even deafer ears, Professor Erhart eventually getting his say and presenting a paper in front of the small think tank working group he's been part of. Here is the closest Menasse gets to spelling out his own programme, lecturing the reader as Erhart does the small assembled group. Erhart assails them -- and the E.U. complex as a whole -- for foolishly clinging to what has, or should have been, superseded:
All of you still think in terms of national budgets and national democracies. As if there were no common market and no common currency, as if there were no freedom of movement for finance streams and value chains.
       As he sees it:
You're cats inside a box and there is no certainty you exist. You and your theories are only presumed to be real.
       The stumbling block to the original vision of the "European unification project" remains the clinging to the nation-state concept:
none of this is achievable so long as national consciousness continues to be fuelled in the face of historical experience, and so long as nationalism remains largely unrivalled as an ideology with which citizens can identify.
       But the primacy of the nation-state, and the patriotic clinging to the concept, is unassailable: one's country above all (even as several of the characters are among those for whom, officially, nationality has become a more porous and loosely defined concept).
       Menasse is good on the nature of these bureaucracies, from the pig-farming lobbying group to how matters move through official circles. So, for example:
Most of the directorates-general didn't turn up. For anybody in the Commission wishing to advance a project, a general lack of interest in it came as a great relief. It meant that you didn't have to grapple with endless opinions, counter-opinions, unproductive suggestions and petty criticism, but could make rapid and immediate progress and get to a stage from which there was no turning back.
       The many storylines do somewhat water down the novel as whole: the Auschwitz ideas could easily have been built up at considerably greater length before being cut down, while some of the meandering -- characters wander around lost, and lost in thought, rather more than necessary -- could have been cut back. The murder-mystery, and the great powers with an interest in it, is a bit of an odd fit, too -- though it too might have benefitted from Menasse going into more depth regarding it. And there's the final twist, the near-end where so much converges on the Maelbeek Metro station; Menasse doesn't (have to) provide the date -- 22 March 2016 -- as he ties his story closer to recent European experience and history; still, here too, more, in some way, would probably have been better. (Certainly American readers are unlikely to make the immediate connection, this just one of far too many such similar distant occurrences and, as is, this coda thus too simply abrupt.)
       The Capital is a substantial novel, but there's easily room for more here. Menasse tackles a big subject, and in expanding it even more, beyond just the confines of the EU offices and Brussels, can't quite give all his storylines and many characters the attention they demand (if not necessarily deserve). It is a good EU novel -- an interesting examination of political order and memory, and our failure to sustain the lessons of history -- but falls short of being a great (or the arguably necessary) one.
       Menasse juggles a lot of ideas and stories (including many of the characters' backstories), but he's much better and on firmer ground with the ones of greater immediacy, particularly the office- and bureaucracy-scenes than in his big-picture efforts (no matter how sympathetic his admirably anti-nationalist message is). Certainly, the many stories are well-juggled and presented, making for an enjoyable and engaging read -- but it all goes down almost too easily, connected and converging, but not coming together as a truly greater whole.
       Menasse seems to have tried to avoid making The Capital a polemic, without being able to keep himself from polemicizing; he might have done well to go whole hog .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 June 2019

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The Capital: Reviews: Other books by Robert Menasse under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Robert Menasse was born in 1954.

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© 2019-2020 the complete review

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