‘The Capital’ Is a Sharp Political Satire About Europe at This Perilous Moment
I enjoyed “The Capital” so much that I could keep going like this. It’s possible this is a great Holocaust-minded novel for a new millennium. Some of its characters are survivors of Auschwitz; others visit it. Still others think long and hard about the meanings to which the camp can be put as a symbol of the need for overcoming national sentiment.
One survivor meets yet another young person with a shaved head and tattoos and loses his cool. “Did they know what they were doing, what they were expressing, what associations they were evoking?” He thinks: “You’re insulting the world’s memory!”
In the end I think “The Capital” may be a major book about coincidences, of linked and overlapping meanings. G.K. Chesterton thought of coincidences as “spiritual puns.” For Menasse they have similar meaning. In this Balzac-like novel, he introduces us to a dozen or so characters — bureaucrats, police inspectors, academics, lobbyists — and spins them around one another. Their lives intersect and chime in resonant ways.
One of these characters is Fenia Xenopoulou, a Greek woman turning 40 who has been given a job with no clout and almost no budget, as head of communications for the Directorate-General for Culture. She needs to get out. She kisses up, sleeping with a powerful colleague, and kicks down, ordering one of her subordinates, a sympathetic man named Martin Susman, to come up with an idea to help her consolidate her power.
We meet an economist, Grace Atkinson, who hopes to escape the blame when Martin’s idea goes awry. A police inspector, Émile Brunfaut, pushes back against a political cover-up of the hotel murder. An aging Austrian academic named Alois Erhart tells difficult truths about European nationalism, truths no one wants to hear.
Alois reminds us that everything is getting worse. The nature of truth has been degraded. Tabloids stir up base instincts and abet the rise of heinous old ghosts. “He had been prepared for everything,” we read, in a line made for the age of Donald Trump, “but not everything in caricature.”