The Union Without Qualities

The Capital

by Robert Menasse, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Liveright, 417 pp., $27.95
Robert Menasse
Robert Menasse; drawing by Tom Bachtell

About eight years ago, the Austrian novelist Robert Menasse managed, with great difficulty, to arrange a meeting with a woman named Themis Christophidou. She was then deputy head of cabinet of the commissioner in charge of the European Union’s department of culture in Brussels. Christophidou, who is a Greek Cypriot, is a high flyer in the Brussels bureaucracy. Shortly after Menasse met her, she moved up the ladder and went on to be successively head of cabinet for two other commissioners. She is now back in the culture department, but this time at the top of the tree, with the grand title of director-general for education, youth, sport, and culture. She is in charge, incidentally, of the EU’s program to support the work of literary translation. Among the many fine works to have received support from this program is Menasse’s own bestselling novel, The Capital, winner of the German Book Prize.

One of its main characters, Fenia Xenopoulou, is, like Christophidou, a Greek Cypriot woman working in a senior position at the EU’s department of culture in Brussels. But Xenopoulou is unhappy to find herself in this division, which she considers a backwater:

If the commissioner for Trade or Energy—even the commissioner for Catching Fish—needed the loo during a Commission meeting, the discussion was paused and they waited until he or she came back. But when the Culture commissioner had to pop out, they went on talking unperturbed; in fact nobody really noticed whether she was sitting at the negotiating table or on the loo.

Throughout the novel, she is maneuvering to get herself transferred to a more important directorate like Trade. (She is known to her subordinates as Xeno, and Menasse may be punning on Zeno’s famous paradoxes, intended to prove that all motion is an illusion.)

Judging by Menasse’s account in his nonfiction book on the EU—Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits, first published in Vienna in 2012—of his meeting with the real woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Xeno, Christophidou was equally impatient. Menasse had explained in e-mails that he was writing a novel set among the people who work within the European Commission’s bureaucracy and wanted to ask her about their day-to-day working life. Christophidou eventually agreed to talk to him for an “absolute maximum” of forty minutes.

Menasse’s account of the dialogue that followed is hilarious:

Christophidou: I don’t understand why you want to speak to me. My spokesman can give you all the statistical information you need.

Menasse: I don’t need any statistical information. I’m writing a novel…

C: What does that have to do with me?

M: Nothing, or rather, only indirectly. I’m writing a novel in which one of the characters is an official with the Commission…

C: Does…

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