Book Notes: Robert Menasse’s The Capital

Here’s the deal, folks. This is a good book, an important book, a book with many valuable insights and attractive moments. But it was a painful slog of a read for me. I had to force myself to go back to it every single time.

Maybe I’m the problem. Maybe it’s just not my sort of a book. Many people suggest that the English translation is hideous, so it might be that.

I guess the problem for me is that the book is so logical, so obsessed with constructing an argument and making a set of very clear points that there’s just no love there.

This is a novel about the EU. There are so many characters and so many story lines that they never really come together. Logically, it makes sense. The author is trying to show that the EU is made of such disparate elements that they can never fully merge into a meaningful, functional whole. But it’s precisely the predictability of this argument that is so boring. The EU is ludicrously bureaucratic. Here is a trillion of examples. The EU bureaucrats are self-serving career-obsessed bastards. Germany is the center of the universe. Hungarians are anti-semitic. Poles are obsessively Catholic. Czechs smoke. Greeks grift. Brits are vapid. Ukrainians are shady. Italians are devious. Spaniards… aren’t anything because Spain doesn’t exist in this novel. Which is typical.

A larger failure of the novel is the author’s fear of the Muslim issue. It’s hinted at and sometimes even kind of sort of mentioned. But there’s definitely fidgeting around the topic. An even bigger problem is the complete absence of poverty, austerity, or precariousness. In Menasse’s world, money doesn’t exist. And 400 pages about bored, spoiled bureaucrats constantly eating at fancy restaurants get repetitive.

And the pig, gosh, that 🐖. The whole 🐖 part should be excised completely because it’s pretentious and I don’t even get it.

Now, there are also some very worthwhile parts. The ending is very strong. Few writers know how to do an ending any more but Menasse is really good at it.

Another definite win is that a book written in 2017 that has the word Auschwitz on every page is neither cheesy nor vulgar. I always say that if you have nothing radically new to say about the Holocaust, just leave the Holocaust alone. At this point, evoking the Holocaust and telling fictional Holocaust stories is simply exploitative, a way to make a quick buck.

Menasse, though, does have something new to say about Auschwitz. I’m super super prickly about fictional treatments of the Holocaust (I’m Jewish on my father’s side, if you don’t know) but I was not even a tiny bit annoyed by how Menasse writes about it. Which is really outstanding.

I’m not sorry I read the book because the last 10 pages make it worth the effort but it was a lot of work. If Menasse had at least cut out the story line about the 🐖 farmers. And the one about the French policeman. And the one about the murder. There would still be five million story lines left but the whole thing would feel less scattered.