The crime story, a somewhat lurid Dan Brownesque yoking together of the Vatican and foreign intelligence services to track down and assassinate Islamic terrorists, does not convince. It does, however, give Menasse the opportunity to create two of the more memorable characters in the novel, Brunfaut, a Brussels police inspector, and Mateusz Oswiecki, a Polish martyr to the pathological piety of his youth... Robert Menasse has written an important and timely book, ably abetted and assisted in English by his translator, Jamie Bulloch. He is the latest in a long line of Austrian writers from Robert Musil to Karl Kraus to Elfriede Jelinek who put satire at the service of higher and more urgent truths.
Jamie Bulloch’s excellent translation is occasionally let down by inattentive proof-reading: the omission of small words (of, to, or, etc); “batallion” (spelt correctly on the following page); the central square of the old city is Grand-Place, or Grand Place (as it appears in the original), not “Grande Place”; charmingly, at one point, “Emile Brunfaut said that he couldn’t down sit anyway” (“… Brunfaut sagte, dass er ohnehin nicht sitzen könne”). But the real problem with this curate’s egg of a novel is that it appears unsure whether to praise the EU or to bury it, and it rather ends up doing neither.
The Capital delivers, within a brilliant satirical fiction, thoughtful and instructive analysis of both the weaknesses in the EU that galvanise leavers and the strengths that motivate remainers... Lacking German, I can’t assess the accuracy of Jamie Bulloch’s translation, but the English prose has a panache and clarity rare in exported literature... Readers may understandably feel that a novel about the EU is the last thing they need just now; but if so they will miss a first-class read.
The Austrian author Robert Menasse’s polyphonic EU satire, which won the highly regarded German Book prize, juggles a multitude of wryly amusing storylines and skewers the commission’s “comitology-speak” (“Arrangements that were once ‘made’ were now ‘facilitated’ ”). Lively pen sketches of characters such as the boorish British civil servant (who, in a book where pigs pop up with alarming regularity, has his own Bullingdon Club related pig story) and the private secretary to the commission president who sees every meeting as a fencing match, are skilfully done. “In Brussels, you counted the time in kilos rather than years,” one eurocrat observes of the lunching culture.
Menasse has sly fun with the ‘Babylonian gibberish’ of the Commission and the Yes, Minister ruses of its staff. With its zest, pace and wit, Jamie Bulloch’s translation serves him splendidly. Intermittently, The Capital soars above the citadel of intrigue to give a ‘bird’s-eye perspective’ from the past. It tempers satire with sympathy for the battered dream of unified Europe as ‘the realm of freedom’ and solvent of national hatreds. Yet its snaking plot, and scheming mandarins, gleefully run away with the novel — like the fugitive pig trotting around Brussels as a grunting emblem of the mystery and mayhem that impede every masterplan to straighten Kant’s ‘crooked timber of humanity’. In Britain, I suspect, Menasse will gladden many hearts, but change few minds.