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 that person know you are writing a novel about him or her? Did that person give you permission? What kind of book is it supposed to be? A biography?

As Menasse tries to explain to one of the EU’s leading cultural policy officials what a novel is, she loses patience and shows him to the door: “Listen, I don’t have the slightest interest in talking about my work. And I’m even less interested in becoming a character in a novel.”

No luck there, it seems. Xeno, in The Capital, is equally baffled by the novel she has to plow through because it is the favorite reading of the president of the commission and she is hoping to impress him by slipping it into her small talk. Her underling, an Austrian official named Martin Susman, is amazed: “Xeno is reading literature, Martin thought in astonishment, a novel! For the sake of her career she’s even prepared to read a novel.” Xeno, though, finds the book incomprehensible: “She didn’t have a scheme for this; what was it about? What information from it might prove useful, what in God’s name should she commit to memory?”

This reads like revenge on Christophidou. But in fairness to the real woman, some of her hostility to Menasse can be excused as justifiable paranoia. The European Commission for which she works is one of the world’s most civilized institutions. It was created in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome and has become so ubiquitous a presence in European affairs that it is hard to remember what a remarkable innovation it is. It is often described as the EU’s civil service, but it is in fact a strange hybrid: a bureaucracy that also has the power to propose legislation and to enforce regulations. It thus conflates the capacities—legislative on the one side, executive on the other—that are supposed to be kept apart by the Enlightenment doctrine of the separation of powers. (Powers in the EU are separated in a different way, with the European Council, made up of the prime ministers of each member state, setting overall policy, and the directly elected European Parliament adopting legislation and holding the commission to account.)


The commission is staffed by bright people from twenty-eight different countries (soon to be twenty-seven if Brexit goes ahead), speaking twenty-four official languages, the vast majority of them recruited by open competition. The commissioners who head the individual departments are appointed by the national governments of the member states (one commissioner each, serving a five-year term), but both they and the bureaucrats are obliged by law to act in the interests, not of their own countries, but of EU citizens as a whole. “Bloated bureaucracy” is one of the clichés perennially attached, like a limpet mine, to this structure, but in fact the commission is remarkably lean. It employs just 32,000 people permanently or on contract; the UK, where rants about the overstuffed Eurocracy in Brussels are especially relished, has 430,000 civil servants.

And, broadly speaking, it works. As well as creating and sustaining the world’s largest single market, the commission has driven huge improvements in environmental standards, shaped the EU’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change, and protected the rights of migrant workers, consumers, and the safety of food and goods. It has shown some capacity to stand up for citizens against the might of the tech giants: in 2018 it created the General Data Protection Regulation, the first serious effort to control the hoovering up of personal data by companies like Facebook and Google. It has drawn up strong regulations to protect the privacy of online communications. It has imposed fines that so far exceed $9 billion on Google for violations of antitrust laws, and will almost certainly do the same to Facebook. It has begun to challenge tax avoidance by transnational corporations—its demand in 2016 (currently under appeal) that Apple pay Ireland €14.3 billion in improperly avoided taxes is just the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a long struggle to limit corporate rapacity.

Yet—and this is where one might have some sympathy for a commission official faced with a nosy Austrian novelist—this broadly successful and progressive experiment in transnational government has generally received very bad press. As Menasse nicely puts it in Enraged Citizens, “What’s simply called ‘legislation’ on a national level is pejoratively referred to as a ‘mania for regulation’ in the European unification process.” Boris Johnson’s characterization of “the Brussels commission, with its strange pipe-puffing Frenchmen in oatmeal-coloured offices” has its equivalents in every EU country except France, where the strange pipe-puffers would be German. The Brexit referendum paradoxically increased support for the EU in most member states, by creating a painful example of where facile anti-EU rhetoric can lead. But before 2016, confidence in the commission as an institution on the part of EU citizens hovered between 38 and 45 percent. Why? Partly because the commission’s relative independence and tendency to stand up to large corporations make it anathema to the kind of people who control media. (The English journalist Anthony Hilton has reported that he asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the EU. “‘That’s easy,’ he replied. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.’” Murdoch later denied having said this.) Partly, too, because national governments have long played a dishonest game of blaming “Brussels” for their own unpopular actions and posing as defenders of the nation’s interests against the overmighty bureaucrats.

It is precisely this absence of public recognition that shapes the central plot of The Capital. From his unfortunate encounter with Christophidou, one might expect the novel that Menasse was working on when he sought her help to be a stinging satire or a Kafkaesque fable. The Capital does have elements of self-conscious absurdity: one motif is a mysterious pig spotted on the streets of Brussels and the media frenzy it creates. Is it part of a conspiracy? Are there more pigs? What should the pig be called? (Porcine imagery also runs wild in the novel as a whole.) Another subplot is a botched murder that is committed in the prologue but never solved, creating a narrative black hole that may or may not contain the possibility that the Catholic Church is running a death squad in league with European intelligence services, and making the novel in part a detective story in which even the crime is never really understood. These elements give The Capital a somewhat madcap quality that adds greatly to its entertainment value.

But Menasse has a serious purpose. In Enraged Citizens he describes the thought process behind his decision to move from Austria to Brussels:


If it’s still possible to write a realist novel that, through its manifestations of reality, depicts the essence of an epoch, then…I had best make my way to the place where that reality is being produced—and without a doubt that place nowadays is Brussels. There, in the reviled “bureaucratic palaces,” our actual and essential social parameters are being established, no matter where on the continent we are located…. I didn’t yet have a plot. But to get things started, I did need to know: Is the engine room producing our reality suitable for a novel? And are the people working in it “characters”?

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. And here we can see why poor Xeno is not the cruel caricature we might have expected from Menasse’s encounter with Christophidou. Her struggle to read a novel, indeed to see the point of fiction at all, is not so far from Menasse’s own primary questions about his project. He certainly shows that the people who work in the commission can be turned into “characters”—Xeno and Martin are memorable creations, and though Christophidou was little use in Menasse’s quest to understand the daily lives of the bureaucrats, he clearly got that knowledge elsewhere. The mundane trials and pleasures of their work are beautifully etched. But whether or not the realist form can still contain “the essence of an epoch” remains an open question. 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 political melancholia, less realist and more gothic. It is a haunted book.

Whatever his original intention, Menasse gives us not “the essence of an epoch” but the end of an epoch—with the twist that he is not quite sure which epoch is coming to a close. We discover in The Capital that the novel favored by the president of the commission is Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. In that sprawling, unfinished epic, one of the central characters is drawn into what is known as the Parallel Campaign—a grandiose project to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph’s accession to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The project is managed by the dithering Count Leinsdorf (“We must,” he says, “do something final, even if it’s only temporary”), who has no grasp of what is going on outside his bureaucratic palace. And the anniversary is due to fall on December 2, 1918—by which time, of course, Austria-Hungary and its empire will be obliterated. Franz Joseph, in a further irony, is to be hailed specifically as the “Emperor of Peace.”

Menasse is an admirer of The Man Without Qualities, and he writes in Enraged Citizens of his own literary tastes:

All the novels I’ve loved the most, the ones I’ve most ardently admired and those that have made the deepest impression on me… can all be subsumed under one concept: they’re all “evening-before” novels. They all represent, as it were, the eve of an epochal rupture.

In The Capital, Menasse adopts Musil’s device of placing a doomed “Big Jubilee Project” in the center of his novel. In response to the polls showing the commission’s poor image with European citizens, Grace Atkinson, director-general of its communications division, decides that there should be a jubilee celebration in 2017 to mark either the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome or the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the commission itself in its current form. This will be “an opportunity to put the work and achievements of this institution in the public spotlight, strengthen its corporate identity, improve its image, afford it a wholehearted celebration and thus sally forth from their defensive position.” The job of suggesting what form this celebration will take devolves on Xeno and then down to Martin Susman.

Here, though, Menasse’s intentions are more complex than Musil’s. The “abortive meanderings of the Parallel Campaign” in The Man Without Qualities have, for the reader, an obvious end point. Writing in the 1930s, Musil knew not just what Austria would be like in 1918 but also where it would wind up thereafter. The Capital has, at one level, a clear sense of the “epochal rupture” that is on its way but, on another level, Menasse is fruitfully uncertain. On the first level, the world that is clearly dying is a world of living memory. Early on, Martin thinks of “prehistory” and how “it’s so significant and yet it flickers unremarkably” on the edge of consciousness. It is this flickering of prehistory that gives The Capital its gothic quality. In Menasse’s vision, the European Union is, or at least ought to be, haunted by its own prehistory, which is the rise of fascism, World War II, and the Shoah. But this prehistory is not just flickering—it is flickering out as those who lived it are dying off.

The detective Émile Brunfaut, who is trying to investigate the murder committed in the prologue, visits the grave of his grandfather, a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance:

He would have liked to embrace those who had gathered at this grave year in, year out, [but] there was nobody left, no living soul who could remember his grandfather and his heroic deeds.

Martin, meanwhile, has to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau to monitor the spending of EU subsidies for its museum and research center. On arrival, he is given a badge to wear with the designation “Guest of Honour in Auschwitz.” When he lights a cigarette, a man in a uniform warns him: “No smoking in Auschwitz.” It strikes him that these otherwise ordinary incidents appear so grotesque only because being in the camp alters the perception of reality. Could this process be conducted on a grand scale, so that we could see ordinary European life in the light of Auschwitz? From this, he conceives his big idea for the jubilee: to find the remaining survivors of the camp and bring them together to remind Europe that the commission grew out of the “consensus that this crime must never be repeated.”

Private Collection/Art Resource/© 2019 C. Herscovici/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

René Magritte: Zeno’s Arrow, 1964

This makes Menasse’s jubilee much more sombre and meaningful than Musil’s. The idea is not fatuous as in The Man Without Qualities, but deadly serious. Yet this in turn creates the difficulty of maintaining the dignity of the subject against the backdrop of the political and bureaucratic absurdities that, as we can guess from the beginning, will doom Martin’s vision. Menasse manages this superbly through the figure of a camp survivor, David de Vriend, first glimpsed in the novel’s opening lines as he takes a valedictory glance at a Brussels square before he leaves for good the apartment he has lived in for sixty years and moves to a retirement home. In the empty apartment, he contemplates the visible absences: the mark on the wall where a picture had hung, the outline of a cupboard. He is himself becoming one of these absences, shading into a spectral afterlife. “Old knowledge was embedded in him,” but will that terrible knowledge of Europe’s descent into Hell die with him? Menasse treats de Vriend with great tact and care, making him a living ghost who himself sees ghosts. The gates of the cemetery near his new home remind him of those of Birkenau. He keeps seeing the past in the present:

Recently he’d been seeing more and more bald heads on the streets, young people with no hair and tattoos. Did they know what they were doing, what they were expressing, what associations they were evoking?

The irony of the story is that, while Martin is looking without success for a list of survivors who might take part in the putative jubilee event, de Vriend is not merely flitting unnoticed and unknown around the action but is engaged in a similar exercise. Wondering “who still alive spoke the same language as he did,” he draws up his own list of fellow survivors and, scouring the death notices, crosses off the names of those who expire. While Martin is trying to get the commission to reassert that “Auschwitz is everywhere,” de Vriend inhabits a kind of nowhere, fading away like the mark on his wall of a picture that’s been taken down.

Menasse is quite right about this “epochal rupture” and the amnesia that comes with it. The rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe is a great act of willed forgetfulness. The EU itself was created out of terror as well as hope. Its shared territory is not a landmass. It is the abyss. Both its transnational institutions and its broadly social democratic values were understood as dikes to hold at bay a barbarism that would otherwise inevitably return. But in the triumphalism that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this necessary fear gradually dissipated. The European “social market” model, with its state-regulated capitalism and active redistribution of wealth, has been weakened by neoliberalism. The consequent inequalities (both within member states and between the northern and southern countries), exacerbated by the austerity unleashed in response to the great banking crisis of 2008, have opened the way for a resurgence of the far right.

This reality gives The Capital the premonitory “evening before” atmosphere that Menasse so admires in other novels. “History,” reflects the philosophical detective Brunfaut, “is nothing more than an oscillation between pathos and banality.” This is equally true of Menasse’s kaleidoscopic tale, which swings between the banality of the lives of the commission officials and the pathos of a noble project trapped in political entropy. Hovering over the book is the melancholic question: Is the EU just the afterlife of a prehistory that is losing its grip on the European imagination? To this, Menasse (again rightly) has no simple answer. The parallel with The Man Without Qualities suggests a gloomy, even apocalyptic, conclusion: like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the EU is doomed. But explicitly in Enraged Citizens and implicitly in The Capital, Menasse suggests that while something is certainly dying, we do not yet know what it is: “Either the Europe of nation-states will perish or the project to transcend those nation-states will…. There isn’t a third possibility.”

In The Capital, Menasse’s spokesman is the aging and grieving Austrian academic Alois Erhart, who finds himself on a commission of experts contemplating the future of the EU. He is a passionate advocate of the first of these options:

We need something completely new, a post-national democracy, so that we can construct a world in which national economies no longer exist…this was what the founding fathers of the European unification project dreamed of—because of their experiences. But none of this is achievable so long as national consciousness continues to be fuelled in the face of all historical experience, and so long as nationalism remains largely unrivalled as an ideology with which citizens can identify.

Or as Menasse himself puts it approvingly in Enraged Citizens, the founding principle of the EU was that “the soil nourishing nationalism must be completely eradicated. And that soil was the nation-state.”

If Menasse is right, then there really is no doubt about the outcome. If the survival of the EU depends on the eradication of the nation-state and of “national consciousness,” the EU is inescapably moribund. Identification by citizens in Europe with their nation-states is as powerful as it ever was—it is weakening only where people choose to identify with even more fractious nationalisms instead (as in, for example, Catalonia or Scotland). If this is a zero-sum game, the winner is already clear: nations will vanquish the “post-national” project of the EU. The emergence of militantly nationalist regimes in Hungary and Poland and, since The Capital was written, in Britain and Italy would seem to seal the argument.

But perhaps this binary opposition is too stark. The EU has survived the self-inflicted crisis of the ill-conceived euro, the great banking disaster, and the wrongheaded austerity policies that made it worse. Brexit, widely seen in 2016 as the beginning of the end for the EU, has actually strengthened popular support for it across Europe—if this is what leaving the EU looks like, most citizens have taken fright at the spectacle. The direct elections to the European Parliament in May did not produce the much-anticipated surge for far-right nationalists. Perhaps European democracy can be transnational without being post-national, with layers of belonging from the local to the national to the continental to (in the face of the climate emergency) the planetary. Perhaps the EU will simply survive faute de mieux, since there are no national solutions to the global problems its members face.

And as for the need to eliminate national consciousness in order to identify with Europe, The Capital itself rather wonderfully contradicts this idea. The novel is, paradoxically, very Austrian. Its vision, however skeptical, is of what Menasse calls in Enraged Citizens “the enlightened Josephinian civil service organization of the Commission.” “Josephinian” refers to the eighteenth-century reforms of the Hapsburg (and Austrian) ruler Joseph II. Many of The Capital’s main characters are Austrian. Its strong relationship to The Man Without Qualities places it in a national literary tradition that might be called a source of “national consciousness.” Even Menasse’s contempt for the nation-state is shaped by the peculiar history of Austria itself, which is such a recent and fragile creation.

Yet none of this stops The Capital from being a remarkable success as a self-consciously European creation. In spite of himself, Menasse has given us a work in which a national identity and a European allegiance are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they blend into the very thing that the unfortunate bureaucrat found unimaginable, a gripping novel with an urgent political purpose.