The Bureaucracy of the Absurd

Robert Menasse’s The Capital opens up a new genre that might be called “Novels About the European Commission.” Some wit will protest: “But the European Union has been producing fiction for decades!” Be that as it may, if the category is widened to “Novels About Bureaucracy,” then The Capital joins a venerable genre indeed, including, but by no means limited to, The Castle and The Trial by Kafka, 1984 by Orwell, Brave New World by Huxley, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Organization Man by William Whyte, and The Bureaucrats by Balzac. More recent possibilities include The Mammaries of the Welfare State by Upamanyu Chatterjee (2004), and (in English translation) The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (2001).

The Capital, part political satire and part novel of manners, was originally written in German and then quickly translated into the remaining official “working languages” of the EU, French and English, followed by Italian and Spanish translations. Menasse, an Austrian, is well known in Europe, having published fiction and non-fiction works for which he has received numerous accolades. He is a polyglot and a translator in his own right; accordingly, he has salted The Capital with phrases and sentences in a variety of EU languages. Menasse’s linguistic versatility engenders the ambiance of the multilingual Commission and, more broadly, of the multinational unofficial “capital” of the EU, Brussels.

Menasse declines to use quotation marks in his conversations, though he does not structure his conversations as adroitly as, say, Cormac McCarthy. Close attention is needed to follow when the narration stops and the dialogue ends.

The book has quickly become a sensation, though some may conclude that its popularity is due to hype as well as merit. The book features at least five protagonists, depending on how you count them, two of whom work full time for the Commission. Included also are a detective who enjoys cemeteries, an aging academic, and an assassin who wishes he were a cleric. The reader is soon committed to discovering how the author might unite the storyline of these diverse personalities. One nail-biting subplot of the novel involves Fenia Xenopoulou, a Greek-Cypriot recently “promoted” to the Directorate-General for Culture, as she desperately pursues various stratagems to move to a more prestigious directorate.

Poking Fun at the Bureaucrats

The text opens with the sixth protagonist, a rogue pig, racing through Brussels. The locales are authentic so the escapade constitutes a brief pig-led travelogue to the historic parts of the city. The pig becomes a motif: one of the windows through which we view the Commission is the various national pig farming associations who try to negotiate with agricultural EU regulators so as to give them the best chance of competing with China’s parallel operations. China is a tough competitor since, for them, no part of the pig goes to waste. As the novel progresses, the narrator explains that the cryptic swine evolves into a “universal metaphor,” though the meaning of the metaphor is up for grabs. Possibilities, all of which are ludicrous, include “good and evil,” “fortune and disaster,” “sentimental love,” eroticism,” and “wickedness.”

Early in the novel, a murder occurs in the Atlas Hotel and so a separate plot is the half-hearted investigation that runs the course of the book. The quirky novel is thus energized with bureaucratic drama, porcine commotion, and a low-intensity murder mystery. If there is any one of the subplots that threatens to become the main plot, it is Fenia Xenopoulou’s attempt to maneuver the bureaucratic thickets of the EU in the interest of organizing a jubilee celebration of the EU Commission without sharing any of the glory with the EU Council of Ministers.

Existentialism shades the novel, but not in deep tones, though the opening line is revealing: “You need to be able to allow yourself a bout of depression.” The existentialist attitude surfaces through bureaucratic idiosyncrasies and beyond: The detective relaxes in a cemetery where he ruminates, “So long as cemeteries existed, there was the promise of civilization.” He also recalls “E.U. funeral guidelines” that guarantee a “minimum level of dignity” at such doleful ceremonies. (How were funerals dignified before the EU?) And then there is the Commission bureaucrat Martin Sussman, who in anticipation of a trip to Poland, purchases long johns, which, the perky salesclerk assures him, “comply with the new E.U. guidelines for underwear.” Xenopoulo, hoping to meet with the President of the EU Commission about her bureaucratic misery, discovers his favorite book is that highly-regarded but little-read 20th-century novel, The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. She finds it inscrutable and tosses it aside after ten minutes.

Menasse offers no continent-wide solution for the EU’s present challenges or those that are sure to come. He does, however, seem to have faith that the EU project can continue.

Menasse finds inspiration in Kafka’s The Castle: At one point, the Commission President’s private secretary, Romolo Strozzi, suggests to Xenopoulo, “Imagine . . . that the president doesn’t really exist. That there haven’t been any presidents since Jacques Delors! . . . Every word the president utters is being spoken by his ventriloquists.” A page later, Menasse’s characterization of EU bureaucrats is unsettling as the narrator suggests, “They appeared to need barely any food and as good as no sleep, they got by with few words, few gestures, they avoided sugaring their souls with the sweetness of empathy.” Kafka’s Metamorphosis is invoked when one character explains he’s reading a book about a man “who wakes up and finds he’s a beetle.”

Ultimately, consideration is given to holding the proposed jubilee celebration at a site sure to unite, or scandalize, all Europeans: Auschwitz. For some it will be a sign of EU hope, for others, despair. It is the discussion of Auschwitz as a symbol for the EU that constitutes the most solemn passages of the novel. Consideration is even given to staging a play when a creative member of the celebration committee imagines the plot: “All of a sudden a society with dementia understands what it had wanted to be. . . . [A] terminally ill continent remembers the medicine that had promised a cure, but which it had discontinued and forgotten.” He then worries about how this might possibly be played out on the stage.

Nationalism and Supranationalism

How does The Capital relate to contemporary politics?  Progressives will likely receive it with indifference. Unless they are academics, American progressives pay little attention to the European Union so, with the exception of a few, it is of little interest. Conservatives are a different matter, however, because the EU is an entity many love to hate. To be sure, conservatives will find the tenor of Menasse’s book an attractive one, for he satirizes two favorite targets: bureaucracy in general and the European Union’s bureaucracy in particular.

But conservative applause for the novel may be premature. The book’s political message is not always clear. For instance,  the academic, Professor Alois Erhart, delivers a lecture in which he excoriates the blight of nationalism at length, though with such a panoply of characters it is not clear if he speaks for the author or not. Accordingly, the satire in the novel is not simply a lampoon of bureaucratic pathologies and the small-minded banal lives of those so engaged; it is also a backhanded slap at a primary source of that friction in Brussels—national attitudes and attachments.

Menasee himself supports the EU project but concludes the nation-state inhibits its progress. Though that attitude is sublimated in the novel, a follow-up with Menasse’s other writing is revealing, especially his non-fiction Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits: Or Why the Democracy Given to Us Must Become One We Fight For (2016). Does Menasse then condemn nationalism? More accurately, he believes that an “ever closer union” is incompatible with devotion to the nation-state.

In recent years, the EU has endured a series of setbacks, including its embarrassing passivity in the face of the sanguinary genocide that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the crisis of the euro, (currently shared by 19 of the 27 member countries), the implosion of sovereign debt, uncoordinated chaotic immigration, grisly terrorist attacks, and most recently, what many see as creeping authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland that exposes the EU’s want of meaningful sanctions to check the erosion of democratic principles among its member countries.

At the moment, EU leaders are trying to negotiate how to help Spain and Italy during the pandemic, a difficult task indeed, since Spain and Italy also needed massive assistance in 2008. During the coronavirus pandemic, the European Central Bank in Frankfurt has directed the disbursement of up to €1.5 trillion to pandemic-ravaged Mediterranean EU countries, principally Italy and Spain. Several Balkan nations also asked for help with medical supplies. In managing all of these challenges, nothing happens without Germany’s say-so, and given that the initial motivation for the EU was to stop German aggression, the irony of Germany’s current preeminence is thick enough to cut with a knife.

The Capital offers no continent-wide solution for these challenges or those that are sure to come. Menasse does, however, seem to have faith that the EU project can continue. He might paraphrase Mark Twain in saying that reports of the death of the European Union are premature. Yet, the occasional cynical tone of the novel leaves the reader with no guarantees of the future and the author’s melancholy over the fading promise of a “United States of Europe” is evident when his narrator asks, “Can you plan a comeback of the future?”

Although the majority of reviewers have raved about The Capital, I am less decided. While Menasse makes forays into several genres, I do not find him particularly successful in any of them. If it were a crime thriller, it would need a more sinister plot; to be sure, the labyrinthine Commission and the mysterious Council of Ministers would make an intriguing context. If Menasse wanted to write a novel of manners, he would have needed to develop two or three of the characters in depth, rather than stringing together limited vignettes of half a dozen characters. The novel might be an insightful political satire if it were, well, more political and more satirical.

But The Capital has its moments of brilliance and it is a unique and useful exploration of the EU. Menasse has thus provided a new perspective through which we might watch the evolution (or devolution) of the EU in a post-pandemic world. Writers like Menasse will at least help EU citizens, and the rest of us, maintain a sense of humor, however dark, without which no democratic enterprise can last for long.