Robert Menasse ‘The Capital’

For any member of the Commission hoping to promote a project, to realise that nobody takes an interest in it is a great relief.***

This is a satire about Europe and the European ideal seen through the eyes of multiple characters, each with their own responsibility within the Europe they live in and its almost planned stagnation. This book looks at the two contradictory forces playing with the destiny of the continent, on one hand a supranational European organisation lead by the Commission and set up after the results of the unbridled nationalism of the early twentieth century had gone to the extremes of the extermination camps and with the main objective which could be summed up as “never again”. On the other hand the representatives of the nation states who want to protect their individual states from a supranational ideal and are themselves at present undergoing the pressure and changes brought about by populism and nationalism within their own countries.

There is the ambitious Fenia Xenopoulou, a Cypriote but with a Greek passport as Cyprus was not a member of Europe until after she had arrived, trained in economics but who has been promoted to a role in Culture:

Greece eventually gets “Culture”….with its never ending financial and budgetary crisis, Greece had hit rock bottom and thus was defenseless and had no other choice but to accept what was given to them: the department everybody looked down on. It wasn’t a mission it was a punishment: when you dont know how to handle money, it’s best not to have any, and so that’s how you wind up with a department that has no budget.***

Xeno, as she is known needs a success to get her career back on track. When in answer to a call for a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the commission one of her team comes up with the idea of putting Auschwitz at the centre of the celebrations, “never again”, why populism and nationalism should never again be allowed to gain foothold, Menasse’s satire on the inner workings of the the Commission and how to kill a project is sumptuous. Xeno is outplayed by the chief of cabinet of the president of the Commission, Romolo Strozzi, a former Olympic fencing medalist, who gives her project the go ahead:

She had a strange feeling. she suppressed it. What was troubling her were the last few sentences Strozzi spoke at the end about planning the next stage: Oh yes, Ill take care of how we’ll include the member states in the project.
The member states? you mean the Council? Xeno replied. Why? I thought we’d agreed, the project is the Commissions responsibility.
Yes that’s clear. But it was the member states that created the Commission.
Yes of course.
It was at that moment exactly that Xeno wasn’t agile enough. that “yes of course” cut an opening in her defense.***

Strozzi is then able behind the scenes to use the member states against the Commission to kill the project. Menasse gives us his view of the sterility of advisory groups who are experts in the status quo and a case study of Europe being unable to negotiate a contract to sell pork offals to China with then, Germany first, and the other nations each negotiating their own contracts with China but from positions of weakness as no individual country is able to satisfy the full demand.

In these few lines I’ve simplified a rich and thought provoking book.

First Published in German as “Die Hauptstadt” in 2017 by Suhrkamp
Translated into French as “La Capitale” by Olivier Mannoni and published in 2019 by Verdier
Translated into English by Jamie Bullock and to be published in 2019 by Maclehose Press.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Pour tout membre de la commission désireux de faire avancer un projet, constater que personne ne s’intéressait été un grand soulagement

“La “culture” revint finalement à la Grèce….avec son interminable crise financière et budgétaire, la Grèce avait déjà touché le fond, elle était donc sans défense et n’avait d’autre choix que de prendre ce qu’on lui donnait: le service que tout le monde dédaignait. Ce n’était pas un mission, c’était un punition: quand on ne sait pas se débrouiller avec l’argent, mieux ne pas en avoir entre les mains, et c’est comme cela qu’on se retrouve avec le département dépourvu de budget”

Elle a eu un drôle de sensation. Elle la refoula. Ce qu’elle repoussa, c’étaient les deux ou trois phrases que Strozzi avait prononcées à la fin, à propos de la suite de la planification: Ah oui je m’occuperai de la manière dont nous intégrerons les états membres dans le projet. Les états membres? Le Conseil donc? avait répondu Xénon. Pour quoi faire? Nous étions d’accord , le projet est l’affaire de la commission.
Oui c’est claire. Mais ce sont les états membres qui ont fondé la commission.
Bien sûr.
C’est précisément à ce moment là que Xeno avait manqué d’agilité. Ce “bien sur” creuset une ouverture définitive dans sa défense.