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Robert Menasse Looks At The People Who Make the European Union Run In 'The Capital'

NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with Austrian novelist Robert Menasse about his new book, an absurdist comic tragedy called The Capital, for which he embedded with European Union civil servants in Brussels.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nearly every day on this program, we talk about the European Union, whether it's the U.K. leaving the EU or refugees crossing borders or trade fights and the rise of right-wing politics. We rarely talk about the massive bureaucracy that keeps the European Union running. The people of that bureaucracy are the subject of a new darkly comedic novel by the Austrian writer Robert Menasse.

ROBERT MENASSE: And I tried to speak so many civil servants as possible, and I wanted to understand how they think, how they live, how is their daily life, why they are failing and so on.

SHAPIRO: Menasse spent four years in Brussels examining the absurdities and contradictions of the EU through the eyes of its civil servants. His novel is called "The Capital." It has a huge cast of characters, and the story includes murder, romance, tragedy and plenty of absurdity with hints of "Veep" or "The Office." Menasse told me he wanted to write this book because of a gap in his own knowledge.

MENASSE: I suddenly thought I have no idea what's going on there, how it works. How is the system, the institutions? Who are the persons who are working there? What kind of ideas to they have? So I decided to go there and to have a look. And my question was if it is possible to make literary figures out of civil servants.

SHAPIRO: On this program, as we cover the news, we talk a lot about the way the European Union does or does not work. What do you think a novel can show us that those news reports might not?

MENASSE: It can tell the stories of the involved people. For the majority of the European citizens, European Union is a very abstract thing, and they have no idea how it works and why so many things are not working. I wanted to see the people who are involved in these politics.

SHAPIRO: After you spent all of that time with the bureaucrats who run the European Union in Brussels, did you come away more optimistic or pessimistic about the future of this coalition?

MENASSE: They made me optimistic. I started to admire them. But at the same time, I got very pessimistic because of the contradictions produced by the national egoism of several member states.

SHAPIRO: You mean the nationalism that is taking hold across much of Europe right now.

MENASSE: Yeah. This is the basic contradiction of European Union. We have a post-national development since more than half a century. We have a single market. We have a common bureaucracy with open borders. So we have evidently post-national politics. At the same time, we see the white nationalism in almost all the member states. And you can't have both at the same time. You can't be pregnant and not pregnant at the same time. You can't be a little pregnant. So are we pregnant with future, or are we - will have a disease of the history.

SHAPIRO: There are moments when it feels like you are leading the reader down a path of scoffing at the European Union and its bureaucracy. And just when the reader starts to feel smug about it, you kind of abruptly pull back and remind us of times when Europe was so deeply divided and millions of people were killed due to that division. It's a very hard pivot.

MENASSE: Yeah, but this is the real situation. This must be understood. The European Union is at the same time and slowly happening revolutionary project. You can't be member of the European Union without accepting the human rights charter as constitutionally basic. And this is in my opinion a real political revolution. And this is what is so interesting.

SHAPIRO: I sense that you love the European Union the way many people love their family members, which is, they drive them crazy.

MENASSE: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: And they can't stand them, and they make them roll their eyes. And they get exasperated, but they couldn't live without them.

MENASSE: I'm proud of being European. At the same time, you can believe me. I am suffering enough with the contradictions and the problems we have here in Europe. At the same time, don't forget I'm Austrian. I am a citizen of a very small country, and small countries have the problem of being a little bit not that open to the world. And it is opener now, which - we saw it of the European politics in the last decade - is definitively a lucky case.

SHAPIRO: Robert Menasse, thank you so much for talking with us today.

MENASSE: Yes, I hope it was helpful.

SHAPIRO: It was. His new novel is called "The Capital."

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