I am sure there are many books of various genres currently being written about Britain leaving the European Union right now, but maybe not so many which satirise the complex bureaucracy of the EU itself. However, Robert Menasse’s novel addresses the latter topic, won the German Book Prize in 2017 and has now been translated into English by Jamie Bulloch. Set in Brussels where the headquarters of the main EU institutions are located, the Directorate-General for Culture has been tasked with organising a celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the European Commission. Martin Susman, the Austrian PA to ambitious Greek Cypriot Fenia Xenopoulou suggests putting Auschwitz survivors at the centre of the jubilee event. Meanwhile, the complexities of European agricultural policy, trade deals and the cost of pork exports to China cause headaches and petty power games galore and Inspector Brunfaut is investigating the death of an unnamed man in the Hotel Atlas. Oh, and a pig is running wild in the streets of Brussels too.
What could be seen as the main characteristics (or flaws) of the novel could also represent the main characteristics (or flaws) of the institutions themselves, most notably a barely coherent plot with several strands which are not neatly resolved. There are many layers to this novel just as there are many layers to the concepts, history and mindboggling bureaucracy of how the EU operates. Those who are disillusioned with the EU, those who attempt to manipulate the system and those who are passionate or acting in thinly disguised national interest are all represented here, among the myriad of contradictions presented by the system and the consequences these have for issues such as migration and terrorism, as depicted in the sombre ending. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of Fenia’s terror of being sidelined in her career through her association with the Directorate which is perceived by many as an administrative backwater.
Like all good satire, Menasse makes some serious points here too. The horrors of the two world wars which inspired the original project of European unity are very prominent, as are the many absurdities of the inner workings of the EU which have also become a bit lost in the current domestic debates about Brexit and international politics. Menasse brings these to the forefront in his sweeping novel which carefully balances barbed cynicism and tolerant admiration for this peculiar system.