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.

12 thoughts on “Book Notes: Robert Menasse’s The Capital”

  1. // Many people suggest that the English translation is hideous, so it might be that.

    I read it in Russian, but doubt the real problem lay in the translation since I also felt that the book was very “logical” and “obsessed with constructing an argument.” It suits the stereotypes about Germans, too.

    When I was reading, I missed “the complete absence of poverty, austerity, or precariousness,” but now when you mention it…

    // Menasse, though, does have something new to say about Auschwitz.

    Could you elaborate on the subject, please? According to my reading, one of the central themes of the book was the vacuity of modern life. Numerous characters such as the Polish assassin and the French policeman try to find meaning in the religious and national past. Yet, their efforts to live up to their heroic ancestors have no chance of success. Existential and Spiritual Emptiness prevails. In the world without the concept of a lasting legacy, what can Auschwitz mean?

    The novel seems to criticise bureaucratic and instrumental use of history, of Auschwitz in this case. Yet, when has historical memory not been instrumental? The only alternative seems to be forgetting.

    “The Capital” also describes De Vriend’s loneliness till he is invited to the Auschwitz ceremony and then forgotten again. At the novel’s end, the woman sorting his things ironically thinks of him as an ‘important’ person because of being invited to a EU ceremony. But, again, what is the alternative? Who and how should’ve remembered De Vriend, a pensioner without relatives or friends? Ending completely alone like that is my fear, so I did feel for De Vriend personally, but nobody is to blame for his condition (except himself, partly).

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  2. For people who haven’t read the book, I want to post a short excerpt from the novel’s ending and then discuss it in the next comment. The scene takes place at the old people’s home after De Vriend and several other characters are killed in the terrorist act. The list of names de Vriend wrote is the list of other survivors, crossing out those who died after the war.

    // What did he actually do in life? Monsieur Hugo said. Was he some sort of prominent figure? A politician or a high-ranking official? I mean, the Commission’s organising his funeral.

    The silent funeral of an epoch, Joséphine thought.

    What I can’t find, Monsieur Hugo said, is all the classic stuff: photo albums, diaries. Very unusual. He didn’t have anything, not even a photo album, everybody’s got one of those, he said, tossing the shoe trees into the box.

    Joséphine wondered what to do with this list of names. Throw it into the box? Or in the bin? Should she cross out David de Vriend’s name too? Is that what he wanted? Is that why he left the piece of paper here on the desk, along with the biro? So that she . . .

    Monsieur Hugo chucked toothbrush, toothpaste, nail scissors, deodorant and razor into a plastic bag and the plastic bag into the box. We’re not even going to fill the box, he said.

    Such a horrific death, Joséphine thought. That de Vriend, of all people, in this attack . . . But what did she mean by “of all people”? For all of them, all of them who were in the wrong place . . . for all . . . twenty dead, one hundred and thirty seriously injured.

    She folded the list of names, put it into the pocket of her white work coat, patted the pocket and thought, So long as his name isn’t crossed out, so long as . . .

    That’s all, Monsieur Hugo said.

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    1. The only thing that stands between Europe’s Muslims and the deeply Nazified Europeans is the lingering sense of shame over the Holocaust that Europeans still have.

      But Muslims are unaware of European history and are themselves destroying the only thing that still keeps the deeply racist Europeans somewhat in check.

      That’s what the novel says, not me, obviously.

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      1. Also, I have to add that locating the birth of the EU in the shame over the Holocaust is a very German thing to do but it’s very dishonest. The author overinflates his Germanic obsessions and completely erases the economic aspects of the EU.

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        1. // locating the birth of the EU in the shame over the Holocaust is a very German thing to do but it’s very dishonest. The author overinflates his Germanic obsessions and completely erases the economic aspects of the EU.

          It also serves the current German national interest..

          The memory of the Holocaust can be used by Germany as a hammer against (potential) EU members’ nationalism.

          The decision to leave EU is turned into almost a support for future Holocaust: “Brexit ‘major influence’ in racism and hate crime rise” (BBC news).

          Naturally, “completely eras[ing] the economic aspects of the EU” and hiding the ways Germany benefits from various policies is a must for the above strategy to work.

          I rememeber you describing authors from centuries ago striving to strengthen national myths. Here, one may see some similarity if one notices like you did how the novel massages history into the best narrative for the Germans.

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          1. I haven’t read the novel, but the author is Austrian, not German, so it isn’t likely that he’s intentionally promoting German national interests. Most Austrians are obsessed with NEVER being confused with the Germans and will never pass up an opportunity to remind you that they are Austrians, not Germans.

            Having said that, the Austrians and Germans are obviously closer to each other than they are to any of their neighbors because of the proximity and shared language. And I think the Austrians have benefited from the EU and the Euro in much the same way that the Germans have, though the Austrians didn’t join the EU until the 1990s.

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      2. Where have you seen “the deeply Nazified Europeans”? I read the book long ago, but still the only scene I remember is the final reaction after the terrorist attack with offering M-name to the pig.

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        1. // Where have you seen “the deeply Nazified Europeans”? I read the book long ago, but still the only scene I remember is the final reaction after the terrorist attack with offering M-name to the pig.

          Now remember a right wing politician who is a villain because of being against EU. Is he from Hungary?

          Anyway, he isn’t from Germany or Austria, but from some East-European country which is OK to villainize.

          Btw, today’s news from Germany:

          // ‘Black day’: German politics shaken as far right becomes regional kingmaker

          BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party and the far right backed the same candidate for state premier in the eastern region of Thuringia on Wednesday, a taboo-breaking move that sent shock waves through German politics.


          “It is a new low point in Germany’s postwar history,” said Lars Klingbeil, secretary general of Merkel’s main federal coalition partner, the Social Democrats.

          Marking the first time the AfD has played the role of political kingmaker, the vote raised questions as to whether the right-wing party, which has surged in popularity in recent years with a nationalist and anti-immigration message, has become an unavoidable force in German politics.

          The election also set the ground for a clash between federal parties — who maintain that the right-wing AfD should be boycotted — and local branches, which have been known to take a more pragmatic stance. The federal leadership of the Christian Democrats was quick to rebuke the actions of its state-level parliamentarians on Wednesday.


          The Thuringia branch of the AfD is known for being particularly hard-line. Its local head, Björn Höcke, has survived calls from within the party itself to oust him over his ties to far-right extremists. AfD politicians said Wednesday’s vote showed that their political presence was impossible to avoid.

          “Liberal-conservative majorities only exist with the AfD,” tweeted Tino Chrupalla, an AfD lawmaker, following the vote.

          https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/black-day-german-politics-shaken-over-as-far-right-becomes-regional-kingmaker/2020/02/05/9cd4598e-482c-11ea-91ab-ce439aa5c7c1_story.html

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        2. OK, how about the “why Jews and not sport” line, obviously offered by Poles? How about the excuse given by the Hungarians? How about the whole idea of the Jubilee celebrations? “Let’s round up all the Jews we can, or maybe we just need one symbolic Jew”? The complete dehumanization, the whole “let’s count them.” The trip to Auschwitz. It’s the modern version of “the Jewish question.”

          To me, that’s what the whole book is about.

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          1. // It’s the modern version of “the Jewish question.” To me, that’s what the whole book is about.

            Interesting. To me, almost everybody in that novel is dehumanized, dehumanizing or both, especially the EU bureaucrats. That’s why the treatment of the Jews didn’t stand out. Those people have huge parts of their souls atrophied, how would they be capable of seeing Jews (or anyone at all) as people?

            One can understand Poles wanting to be seen as something different than the country of Auschwitz. Don’t remember the Hungarian excuse.

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  3. // That de Vriend, of all people, in this attack . . . But what did she mean by “of all people”? For all of them, all of them who were in the wrong place . . .

    What made me very angry was Joséphine’s (the novel’s? the author’s? the European readers’?) acceptance of the inherent meaninglessness without even a shadow of the doubt. De Vriend survived the train journey to Auschwitz, only to be murdered in a European train by a Muslim terrorist. I know living in Israel influences how I see Muslims, especially when in results in dead Jews, but still … Is there truly nothing to discuss?

    The only reaction (in the excerpt below) is anonymous, hidden and (for a reason, I know) ostracised by a polite society.

    Reminds me of Brexit, American ‘wokeness’ and the question of immigration in EU today. The elites and even normal characters in “The Capital” cannot seriously analyze difficult questions, can hardly mention them; the ‘shadow’ of a polite society – hidden on Internet, unaccepted elements – is the only place where reactions appear.

    THE EXCERPT / FINAL WORDS OF THE BOOK:

    The attack on Metro backfired and for a short time became a problem for Le Soir. All the same the editors at Metro had an even bigger problem that needed urgent solving before the public got wind of it too: The “Brussels seeks a name for its pig” competition had got completely out of hand. Readers were able to post their suggestions online or like others’ suggestions, and the rankings of the various names were updated with every new suggestion or click, corresponding to how many times a name had been suggested and the number of likes. This ranking was intended to be the basis for the jury’s longlist. To begin with the suggestions had been the most obvious names: Miss Piggy, Babe, Peppa Pig.

    The only Brussels-related names were Varkentje Pis (17 likes) and possibly Catherine as well (21 likes), because the pig had first been sighted in Sainte-Catherine. But then something inconceivable happened. One name was suggested hundreds of times, and it made its way to the top of the rankings with thousands of likes: Muhammad. That could only have been the result of concerted action. As soon as the editorial office realised this they took the page down. Several jury members resigned, unwilling to be associated any longer with a competition that seemed to be turning into an act of aggression against Muslim citizens.

    We’re axing it, the editor-in-chief said. We’ll keep our heads down. Soon it’ll all be forgotten. By the way, Kurt, have you noticed we haven’t had any new photos of the pig for two weeks? And no reports of any sightings. It’s vanished. Vanished without trace.

    À suivre.

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    1. That’s exactly what I’m saying about the fidgeting around issues. The novel concentrates on the concerns of the tiniest group of very privileged folks and goes on and on incessantly about them as if nothing else existed. But that’s not really Europe. The EU is, first and foremost, austerity for many Europeans. Austerity, impoverishment, and migration, both internal and external. But that’s hard to talk about so let’s talk about trivialities.

      As for DeVriend survived the camps “only to be killed.” He was killed 70 years after surviving the camps. Let’s not erase the long life, longer than many people get, that happened between these two events. We will all die at some point. But it’s what in the middle that matters.

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