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Review Essay

Ever-Further Union

What Happened to the European Idea?

In This Review

The Capital
The Capital
By Robert Menasse. Translated by Jamie Bulloch.
Liveright, 2019, 416 pp. Purchase

The European Union may well be the most ambitious and successful experiment in voluntary international cooperation in history. It has lasted longer than most national democracies in the world today. But it is deadly dull. So it is no surprise that novelists shun EU politics. How could a writer possibly find inspiration among the soulless steel and glass buildings of Brussels, where pedantic bureaucrats, politically correct diplomats, and remorseless lobbyists hammer out market regulations?

Robert Menasse, a popular Austrian author and essayist, accepted the challenge. Ten years ago, he moved to Brussels with the quixotic aim of writing the first great EU novel. The resulting work, Die Hauptstadt, was published in 2017 and won the most prestigious book prize in the German-speaking world, the German Book Prize. It now appears in English as The Capital.

Menasse’s novel is a satirical send-up of contemporary Brussels. Alongside subplots involving terrorists, contract killers, police officers, farmers, fathers, sons, and a (perhaps imaginary) wild pig, the main narrative follows the rise and fall of two absurd plans to re-invigorate the EU: an official proposes that the European Commission’s 60th anniversary be celebrated at Auschwitz, and a retired Austrian economics professor—apparently the last true believer in federalism—seeks to renew European idealism by transferring the EU’s capital to the same spot. Of course, neither plan stands the slightest chance of success. They are easily shot down by venal lobbyists, conformist consultants, cynical national diplomats, and, in a deliciously Machiavellian scene, a suave official sitting atop the European Commission.

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. He skillfully renders the bland life of the expatriate in Brussels—not surprising, since his book research required him to become one. More profoundly, he captures how in modern Europe, where historical memories tied to a specific time and place have grown less vivid, people invoke the Holocaust

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