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Ghosts of Europe Past

In The Capital, Robert Menasse makes a case for the EU

The Capital by Robert Menasse. Liveright, 417 pages.

Like many things people believe in, the fourth-century saint Catherine of Alexandria almost certainly did not exist. Indeed, so compelling are the claims that the saint was manufactured in late antiquity that the Vatican formally expunged her from its liturgical calendar in 1969 (though her feast date was made optional in 2002). Be that as it may, the tracks of her cult have crisscrossed Europe for a thousand years—for better and for worse. Surely, it has benefitted architecture across the continent; churches built in her honor can be found from Krakow to Valleta. But the saint has not exactly brokered a lasting peace among the European nations; just ask the French. St. Catherine was, after all, one of the heavenly patrons of Joan of Arc, who came to an untimely end.

Although St. Catherine’s name is taken to mean some variant of “pure,” her intercessions in Europe’s history comprise a decidedly mixed bag. It’s fitting, then, that a church bearing her name stands in the heart of Brussels—the administrative capital of the European Union. Like the cult of St. Catherine, the EU has threaded the continent together as much as it has presided over disputes that have nearly unraveled it in the past decade. And like St. Catherine, the “Europe” headquartered in Brussels may not truly exist.

Can it? Should it? In 2019, as the United Kingdom slouches toward Brexit and euroskepticism simmers even in the cool German heartland, these are two questions we can no longer comfortably kick down the arc of history. As early as nine years ago, when the Greek debt crisis cracked Europe’s veneer of steadfast convergence, the Austrian essayist Robert Menasse sought to answer both—and left his native Vienna for Brussels to meet the faceless EU in person. By all accounts, he took heart in what he saw and succeeded in his task.

In The Capital, there is no specter haunting Europe; the specter is Europe.

In 2012, he published the book-length essay Der Europäische Landbote, or, Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits, in which he advanced his theory that the EU suffers not from a lack of democracy, but from too much of it. Five years later, he published to acclaim Die Hauptstadt, or, The Capital, a novel inspired by his time in Brussels that fleshes out the theoretical skeleton of Enraged Citizens. It earned the German equivalent of the Man Booker Prize in 2017; Politico called it “the first great EU novel”; The Economist lauded it; the Financial Times christened Menasse a “eurolit pioneer,” whatever that means. At the very least, it must mean that more books like this one will follow, which I imagine brings Menasse great pride. The Capital is the marquee project of Menasse’s now-decade-long Europhile campaign, the tentpole event of his tour as the “literary face of the EU ideology,” according to Koch-funded British magazine Spiked.

Mixing sincere (if at times sanctimonious) apologia for the EU with an acerbic critique of ambitious bureaucrats, the novel is at once an ensemble of European stereotypes, a satire of patriotic lobbyists, and a love letter to people who Menasse has earnestly called the “enlightened” civil servants of the EU. Those years of elbow-rubbing in Brussels were evidently well spent: The Capital is so effectively ironic that it could almost be a pseudonymous dispatch from an idealistic EU whistleblower. Yet, no matter how well engineered this novel may be, its moving parts never quite cooperate—which is an ideal metaphor for Menasse’s chosen subject. Europe, the book ultimately suggests, will only ever exist as long as it fails to begin existing. In The Capital, there is no specter haunting Europe; the specter is Europe.

Phantoms of all kinds abound from the novel’s first page, which opens on a rainy Brussels morning in January 2017 with a fugitive swine that also may or may not exist. Despite various witnesses—who sense a “preposterous and menacing energy” in the “dirty pink” creature—the pig flits in and out of visibility right in the shadow of the Church of Saint Catherine, “the centre of Brussels.” So briefly does it appear, and in the midst of so much commotion, that the local press wonders if perhaps it was more than one pig, “or—hypothesis two—there was no pig, merely the fiction of a pig in the minds of a population irresponsibly unnerved by the affair, that is to say, a hysterical collective projection.” For Menasse, the pig is everything that this sprawling, grotesque and at times, gnomic, novel declines to name.

At the very least, it’s a clever narrative device that stitches his ensemble cast together and sets the serendipitous plot into motion. Where there is a pig, there are evidently sausages; Menasse’s cast is full of them. Almost all the characters are men, except, of course, for the one the book jacket curiously describes as “the heart of a cast as diverse as the union itself”: the shrewd yet robotic Greek Cypriot, Fenia Xenopoulou (Xeno to her friends), a eurocrat par excellence. We meet her in an unremarkable Greek restaurant, resisting the call of a “second ouzo,” when she glimpses the pig, “which seemed to have sprung from a children’s horror story.” But she is too interested in her own exit strategy to pay much mind.

Xeno needs out. As both a woman and a Hellene, i.e., preemptively discredited among the EU’s rank and file, she has been thrown the professional table-scrap of “head of Directorate C (‘Communication’) in the Directorate-General for Culture! Culture!” These are exclamations of distress, not joy. Sold to Xeno as a promotion, the position in Culture is in practice a career setback, one that, at her age (thirty-nine), wounds her hard-earned pride so much that “self-doubt had covered her face like psoriasis”; that is, stripped her of her most powerful weapon. Which is to say, Xeno is a case study in male failure to write women, made worse by Menasse’s trafficking in anti-Greek tropes.

We are told in so many ways that she is frigid; that she is beguilingly attractive; that she trims her pubic hair; that she knows whom to fuck and when. She is caricatured, like her Byzantine ancestors who brought the cult of St. Catherine out of Egypt, as an unnecessarily ornate surface-without-substance, sculpted to reflect exactly what her victims want to see. That she crawled hand-over-fist out of Cypriot poverty to earn an advanced degree at Stanford is incidental, for Menasse, to the men she bamboozled along the way.  

Where there is a pig, there are evidently sausages; Menasse’s cast is full of them.

Sexist imagery aside, Xeno’s professional anxieties are reasonable: the Directorate-General for Culture is emphatically not at the table of EU power brokers. A pink-collar cost-center, Culture is big on soft skills, small on budget, and short on the opportunities for internal visibility that Xeno craves. Moreover, “culture” has historically not been a priority for the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU whose intrigues comprise the bulk of the book’s narrative. Fortuitously for Xeno, all of this changes early on in The Capital, when fresh Eurobarometer polls indicate that more people view the Commission unfavorably than at any other point since its records began in the early 1970s. Worse, they seem not to know what exactly the Commission does.

To phrase it generously, the timing of this revelation is inconvenient for the Commission, which has been hemorrhaging influence since 2009. At the end of that year, the Treaty of Lisbon, proposed in 2007, entered into force and shifted legislative power away from the European Commission to the Council of the European Union, a collection of democratically elected ministers from each EU country. The logic held that the Council would curtail the “undemocratic” authority of the European Commission, keeping the unelected technocrats in Brussels on a short populist leash. To read Menasse’s take on this Treaty in Enraged Citizens, that leash is more like a noose. “The weakening of the Commission and the strengthening of the Council were the Treaty of Lisbon’s original sin,” he writes, bemoaning the Commission’s diminished ability to make “European” laws without member state interference.

In other words, the Treaty of Lisbon pushed the Commission one step closer to obsolescence, fashioning it into the rubber-stamp bureaucracy that, evidently, most Europeans already considered it to be. To make matters worse, in the years since 2009, the financial crisis, debt crisis, and refugee crisis have fertilized the grassroots nationalism in which virile strongmen take root. Taken together, in real life as in the novel, the European Commission has come dangerously close to withering on the vine while the clannish Europe of nation-states flourishes like a weed.

Menasse sketches a fictional solution to this real political situation so believably vapid and grandiose it surely lays dormant on some actual bureaucrat’s flash drive. Here it takes the form of aggressive cultural counter-programming designed to “sell the day-to-day work of the Commission as positively as possible” to the European public. But over and above this simple communications objective is something more profound, if more sinister: the public “had to be encouraged to celebrate the very fact of [the Commission’s] existence,” to grasp its vital importance to the European project.

“They had to create a situation in which the Commission was standing jauntily in the middle, the birthday girl being congratulated,” thinks Grace Atkinson, Xeno’s superior and fellow frigid woman. When Atkinson solicits volunteers to give shape and direction to the project, it’s Xeno, ever the desperate climber, who jumps for it. Unfortunately, she doesn’t first look to see how far she could descend—not that she is stupid enough to take the plunge herself.

Instead, she taps the mind of her Austrian subordinate, Martin Susman, to develop a campaign that will commemorate the birth of the European Commission. In a catastrophic failure of perspective, he proposes a public spectacle at the place where, according to Menasse’s allegedly incorrect account of post-war history, the European project all began: Auschwitz. Susman pitches a grand jubilee at the site during which the remaining survivors of Auschwitz will be put, vaguely, “at the centre of our celebration”—and in so doing recuperate the public image of the European Commission.

In real life as in the novel, the European Commission has come dangerously close to withering on the vine.

“The guarantee of a life with dignity, happiness, human rights, that’s been an aspiration since Auschwitz, hasn’t it? Surely everyone understands that,” Martin preaches to Xeno, who initially responds to the idea with horror. “We have to make clear that we are the institution representing this aspiration. The guardians of the eternal covenant. Never again—that is Europe! We are the moral of history!” The language soars, but that’s easy to do when it has no real weight—which is the point Menasse is trying to make.

Despite its centrality to The Capital’s plot, Auschwitz itself barely appears in the novel. Martin’s late winter visit there is recapped from his fevered plane ride back to Brussels, intercut with commentary from the ladies seated near him. David de Vriend, an Auschwitz survivor recently entered into an elder-care facility, relives fragments of his experience in the camp when dementia shatters his sense of time and place. But we are never granted direct access. Instead, Auschwitz remains an absence with mass and gravity, something discursive that nonetheless has material consequences, like the cult of St. Catherine, like the pig in Brussels, like Europe itself—and this is precisely the problem Menasse aims to address. None of these things are the same or even alike; the supreme danger is that time can make them appear otherwise. Metaphor, synecdoche—anything that extrapolates from the concrete or that concretizes the abstract should be suspect. 

This dilemma is at the crux of The Capital: the vital necessity of recording what might otherwise be forgotten, and the incidental violence of making concrete with language that which exceeds it. Hence the outsize presence in the novel of written lists; epitaphs; personal notebooks (everyone seems to carry a biro); and the archival significance of work emails. Whether written on paper or etched in stone, words bear witness, as David contemplates while walking through a derelict Brussels cemetery. “So long as cemeteries existed, there was the promise of civilization,” he thinks. “His parents, his brother, his grandparents—their graves were in the air. No place you could visit, care for, where you could place a stone.” No place you could write a name.

In Enraged Citizens, Menasse wrote that “the structural defect [of the EU] lies in the fact that the nations, whose power is supposed to be diminishing, must at the same time command sufficient power since it is the very representatives of the nations that must come together to transcend the nations.” But is this a defect? Or a fail-safe, one that keeps the EU from becoming what it could be? “Ever closer union,” as it were, ultimately describes an asymptote.

In any case, he seems to have come around to this more nuanced line of thinking in the five years that elapsed between the publication of Enraged Citizens and The Capital. Either that, or he realized that such thinking is better shown in the form of a novel than told in an essay. But the novel suffers from the same structural “defect” he once identified in the EU. Despite setting us up for a grand convergence of so many Europeans, the knots never quite take; entire threads disappear or end abruptly in what seem like moments of authorial exhaustion. Nothing quite fits. Nothing is really solved. And yet, the book is almost impossible to put down, pushing the reader forward with rare velocity toward an end that seems inevitable but that is always already deferred.

Ultimately, The Capital says little about whether the EU will endure, and even less about whether it should. Instead, it invokes the long, cratered history of Europe, the material conditions of which have been shaped by discourses far more dubious than the post-democratic ideals of the European project. The cult of St. Catherine, the divinely appointed kings of the early modern period, even the long-since crested heyday of the nation-state have directed the development of Europe like a magnet directs metal. Why, if Europeans for centuries could believe so stubbornly in things that have never existed, can they not believe with equal conviction in the European Union? It may be the case that, like this novel, the EU as it is simply cannot work. But in futile persistence there is still motion; better to chase a moving target than be caught by a past we have vowed not to repeat.