Robert Menasse, the man behind the first great EU novel

When I first meet Robert Menasse at Cafe Lava in Brussels, he’s standing in the doorway covered in a cloud of smoke. “Why are you sitting there?” he asks. “Come into the smoking room. That was the whole point of meeting here.” Wearing black rim glasses and a tweed jacket, the Austrian novelist towers over the waiter as he asks for a glass of white wine. He knows the place well, he confesses. “When I lived in Brussels, I used to come here to smoke whenever it was too cold outside.

The author of the 2017 German Book Prize Winner, The Capital –Die Haupstadt, published in German by Suhrkamp– is in Brussels to talk about a novel that explores the minutiae of life inside the European Union and its institutions, the machinery behind it, how it operates, as well as its challenges and contradictions. The visit includes a talk at KVS organized by Passaporta and the Goethe Institute, as well as a book signing event at Librebook.

I wrote this novel because I wanted people to understand the European project. It is the most important political project of my lifetime,” he says. Menasse moved to Brussels in 2010 to be able to understand the city, the intricacies of languages and cultures, as well as to have a more nuanced view of how civil servants live and work in the capital of the European Union. He rented an apartment on Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains, not far from where we are seated, and dove into the research. “The European project is interesting, I find, because after the Second World War, we’ve put into question the whole European XIX century, with its colonialist and imperialist past. The whole idea of nation building was redefined.

He met with officials and soaked himself in the terminology, the protocols, the ideal places to have informal talks over wine. The novel has two main plots: the first one depicts a bitter, somewhat undervalued Cypriot Commissioner for Culture and Education in charge of the “Jubilee Project”, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the European Commission. A second thread involves a Polish hit man who, after killing the wrong person, manages to escape thanks to a large demonstration by pig farmers –they are fighting against an EU regulation that blocks the export of pigs’ ears to China.

Let me tell you why I chose the pigs as a metaphor,” says Menasse in a soft voice. He takes a drag from his cigarette before continuing. “Everyone sees the EU institutions as something abstract. I wanted to give some faces, some humanity to it. The EU is man-made, and everything that humans make, you must be able to tell in a narrative.” He goes on to explain how he marveled at the contradictions he noticed at different levels of the Commission and Parliament when it came to pig meat production: some wish to reduce the size of the industry within the common market because the prices are sinking; others want to increase it because they see China as an opportunity for growth. “And so these are the inner contradictions that you have in life. Think about the way we can say ‘nasty pig’ and ‘lucky pig’ at the same time. Both ideas can exist in beautiful contradiction.

When asked about the recent trade tension between the EU and the US, he points out that the election of Donald Trump has, in a way, benefitted Europe. “Europe can now distance itself, in ideological terms, from the US. In the past, it was harder because some European policy-makers were torn between leaving Europe’s colonialist past behind and remaining an ally to a powerful nation whose interests often encroached those of other countries. Now the distinction can be made clear-cut.

Though exhaustively covered in the media these days, Menasse’s work has not always received the attention it deserved. When his previous book, Expulsion From Hell, came out in 2001 he was crushed by the tepid response from the public. “I poured my heart and soul into it,” he says. “But the level of interest just didn’t pick up.” Many unfortunate factors converged. At the time of the book release, an author whose work had been edited by the same publishing house, was involved in a huge scandal. The publisher was too busy trying to minimize the damage. Some awards did come his way, but it took time.

When the book came out, it was so disappointing,” he says in a calm voice, then sips his wine, lights another cigarette. He seems a man in peace with the past. “Around that time I saw this interview with Hans Krankl, the footballer. In the field, he was always waiting and waiting, and some people thought he had to be sent back to the bench. And then, out of the blue, before anyone knew, he would score. In an interview he said, ‘As important as anything else, is to know how to wait for the right moment.’ And hearing him say those words helped me look at my life in a different way.

He’s a fortunate man, he concedes, because he can make a living as a writer. He smiles, then explains that Expulsion From Hell was crafted as a self-reflection of what it means to be European. “Recently a famous German newspaper wrote, ‘Why is everyone saying that The Capital is the first book about the EU? That’s not true. The first one was written many years ago, and it’s called Expulsion From Hell.’” His humour seems to be in perfect balance with the depth of his insights.

Before he gets ready for his next interview, I ask him what he makes of the election results in Italy, the situation in the German Parliament, the challenges that lie ahead. He reflects on the question for a moment, then says, “If the European project fails, there will be chaos. Misery too, undoubtedly. People will want to have the EU back because none of the big problems can be resolved on a national level. Then they will know.