If you tasked an excellent writer with turning a tall stack of recent issues of The Economist into a novel, you might get The Capital. Somehow I mean this as high praise ... Perhaps what we have in The Capital is a great murder mystery ... It’s an unusual murder story, though, because the suspense lies not in discovering the identity of the assassin (we follow him as he goes on the lam) but the identity of the dead man. You come to suspect that the murder is a kind of MacGuffin, that maybe it doesn’t matter at all. 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 ... The translation, by Jamie Bulloch, is adroit. Yet The Capital made me want to learn to read in German, where it is surely even better. This is a baggy book, with room for everything Menasse wants to put into it. It has its share of longueurs. But there is also pointed writing not just about politics but about subways and orgasms and woolly underwear and air conditioning and retirement homes ... this novel evidences a sharp awareness of the forces remaking European life, with Brexit as only one example.
The Capital is...in part an exploration of its own viability, a testing of the adequacy of literary realism to the task of understanding and presenting the large forces at work in contemporary Europe ... The mundane trials and pleasures of...work are beautifully etched. But whether or not the realist form can still contain 'the essence of an epoch' remains an open question. Perhaps it is appropriate that The Capital, for all its energy and brilliance, its intellectual ambition and literary skill, is saturated with uncertainty. It feels, in the end, less of a grand statement and more of a voyage into political melancholia, less realist and more gothic. It is a haunted book. Whatever his original intention, Menasse gives us not 'the essence of an epoch' but the end of an epoch—with the twist that he is not quite sure which epoch is coming to a close ... [a] kaleidoscopic tale, which swings between the banality of the lives of the commission officials and the pathos of a noble project trapped in political entropy. Hovering over the book is the melancholic question: Is the EU just the afterlife of a prehistory that is losing its grip on the European imagination? ... a remarkable success as a self-consciously European creation. In spite of himself, Menasse has given us a work in which a national identity and a European allegiance are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they blend into the very thing that the unfortunate bureaucrat found unimaginable, a gripping novel with an urgent political purpose.
... delivers, within a brilliant satirical fiction, thoughtful and instructive analysis of both the weaknesses in the EU that galvanise leavers and the strengths that motivate remainers ... recalls Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and The Capital, in scope and tone, suggests a fusion of Heller’s war comedy with his other masterpiece, Something Happened, a dark comedy of office life ... Lacking German, I can’t assess the accuracy of Jamie Bulloch’s translation, but the English prose has a panache and clarity rare in exported literature ... The jaunty playing with words are fittingly reminiscent of that most Eurocentric of recent British novelists, Anthony Burgess. Bulloch also trusts readers to grasp, or at least intuit, untranslated French, German, Czech and Flemish ... Readers may understandably feel that a novel about the EU is the last thing they need just now; but if so they will miss a first-class read.