BRUSSELS — In one of the more cynical lines in the Danish political TV drama, “Borgen,” an aide to the prime minister discusses sending one of her rivals into exile as a European commissioner, saying: “In Brussels, no one can hear you scream.”
But if the European Union has meaning, surely Brussels must. At least that was the hypothesis of Robert Menasse, an Austrian novelist and essayist who moved here in 2010 to try to get under the bureaucratic skin of the place. The result is thought to be the first novel about Brussels as the capital of the European Union, called “Die Hauptstadt,” or “The Capital,” and much to Mr. Menasse’s surprise, it won the 2017 German Book Prize, Germany’s most important literary award.
The prize is worth 25,000 euros, or about $30,000; and if previous recipients are any guide, Mr. Menasse can expect to see sales of his novel increase considerably. There will be translations in some 20 languages; MacLehose Press will publish an English version in early 2019, just before Britain is due to leave the bloc in March 2019.
For Mr. Menasse, a wiry, thoughtful man of 63, the European Union remains a remarkable response to the horrors of the two world wars and the incessant rivalries among Europe’s larger powers. It is in his view the best answer to the challenges of globalization, which are too large for any single European nation to handle on its own.
In this period of renewed populism and nationalism, he concedes, “it sounds crazy to develop a new transnational European democracy.” But “all the big challenges we face today are transnational,” he said, citing the financial crisis, migration, employment, productivity, climate change, terrorism, security and trade.
With all its flaws, “to that extent the European Union is the world’s avant-garde, the world’s future,” while the United States, especially under President Trump, “is retro, even if they don’t know it,” he said. “Believe me, the nation state will die, but we have to find the institutional system to handle it.”
Brussels may be the capital of Belgium, but matters most because it is the symbolic capital of the European Union, a bloc of (still) 28 states and nearly 510 million people. (The United States, by contrast has about 323 million.)
Rather like Washington, Brussels is an administrative, political and lobbying center, chosen not for its political geography or history but because Belgium came first in the alphabet of the founding six nations and so first hosted the new institutions. Except for the Parliament, it evidently was too much trouble to rotate.
But for all its importance, Mr. Menasse mused in 2010, he didn’t really know much about how the European Union functioned, or for that matter, about the functionaries who ran it. So he rented an apartment in the center, on the Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains — not in the dull European quarter where the Union institutions are. For a writer who loves cities, cigarettes and wine, that would have been a step too far.
He set about exploring the place, meeting officials, reading the histories, digging into the archives. “The European Union is man-made, and everything done by man contains a story,” he said. “What they do all day, what are their biographies, nationalities, coming together with all these different languages and mentalities, and suddenly the institution has a face.”
The result is a traditional novel, broad-shouldered, omniscient, almost Balzac-ian, but with terrorism part of a plot centered satirically around an all-too-plausible Brussels idea. An unhappy Greek Cypriot eurocrat, Fenia Xenopoulou, “promoted” to the underfunded, despised department of culture, is charged with revamping the tarnished image of the European Commission, the bureaucracy that administers the bloc, with a big “Jubilee Project” to mark its 50th anniversary.
She is bitter, and thinks: “When the Commissioner for Trade or for Energy, yes, even when the Commissioner for Catching Fish had to leave and go to the bathroom, the discussion was interrupted and people waited until he or she returned. But if the Culture Commissioner had to leave, people kept right on talking, no one even noticed whether she was sitting at the table or on the toilet.”
Ms. Xenopoulou decides on the perfect project — given that the European Union emerged from the atrocities of the Nazis, she proposes to proclaim Auschwitz as the birthplace of the European Commission.
Needless to say, the member nations that actually run the European Union are horrified, each for its own reasons. Poland argues that Auschwitz was a solely German crime; Germany says that Muslims, now a part of German and European culture, were innocent; Austria says that a Polish horror must not be used to undermine the foundations of the Austrian state. And so on.
But Mr. Menasse wants to capture the other Brussels as well, including the headquarters of NATO, so there is another thread — a police detective whose politically sensitive investigation is frustrated and a Polish hit man who kills the wrong person but escapes amid a chaotic protest by pig farmers (and their pigs), demonstrating against an E.U. regulation blocking the export of pigs’ ears to China. The novel ends, eerily enough, with a terrorist bombing of the Maalbeek subway station, in the European quarter.
Over Austrian white wine and cigarettes in a long interview, partly in English, partly in German, at the Savoy Hotel cigar bar in Berlin, he recalled that day in March 2016, when the station and the airport were hit by suicide bombers, killing 32 people.
“When I planned the novel I knew it would end with an attack on the Maalbeek metro station, and then it happened,” he said. “I was in Brussels then and in the beginning I really couldn’t believe it.”
Brussels might have been an historical accident as the capital of the bloc, but it was inevitable for Mr. Menasse. “Brussels is the capital of a nation-state without a national idea,” he said. “It has three official languages and 19 mayors” of individual communes — “it’s like a lab situation for what’s going on in Europe.” It has no national “leitkultur,” or guiding culture, he said. “Its variety is its richness.”
But it is the very persistence of nationalism, and the increase in power in the European Union of the Council of nation states, that creates the real democratic deficit felt by Europeans toward the Brussels institutions, Mr. Menasse argues. “The deficit is the result of defending the national democracies within the European system.”
Mr. Menasse seems an archetypal European. But his history has all the echoes of a terrible past. His father was Jewish, and in 1938, he was one of the 10,000 or so Jewish children brought to Britain in the “Kindertransport.” Mr. Menasse’s uncle also came to Britain and volunteered for the British Army. He fought the Nazis, helping to liberate Vienna. But when he wanted to remain home, Mr. Menasse recounted, his British commanding officer reminded him that “the British Army was not a club, and he ordered my uncle to go to Burma, where he had to fight the Japanese.”
Mr. Menasse’s father also returned to Vienna, and became something of a national hero as a professional football player. “But anti-Semitism was not over in Austria just because the war was over,” Mr. Menasse said astringently. “But they liked my father because he was such a great football player.”
The success of this novel was a complete surprise, he said. He had spent painful years on another novel into which he had poured his soul, “Expulsion From Hell,” published in 2001, which did badly, he said. “When I finished that novel I was full of hopes, that I’d get the Nobel Prize, or else I would die unknown.” He smiled ruefully, lighting another cigarette. “Unknown was right, and I was depressed for two or three years — if you put five, six, seven years of all your emotional and intellectual capacity into one project and no one looks, you can get depressed.”
He worked hard on “Die Hauptstadt,” “but when I gave it to the publisher I had no expectations,” he said. “I was numb in my soul.” And when nominated for the German Book Prize, “I didn’t care. But I went with this attitude and suddenly I had it!” he said. Normally the next day the German press is full of critical, carping articles about the winning book. “But what really touched me,” he said, “was that this time, there were no complaints.”
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