The Austrian Riveter: Writing About Europe. ROBERT MENASSE introduced and interviews by Jamie Bulloch

Robert Menasse, who was born in Vienna in 1954, is a novelist and essayist. His non-fiction output has focused on cultural theory, Austrian identity and, more recently, the European Union. In 2017 he published Die Hauptstadt (The Capital, translation Jamie Bulloch, MacLehose Press, 2019), a novel exploring the dynamics of the European Commission and the characters running it. Die Haupstadt won the German Book Prize that same year and a follow-up novel, Die Erweiterung, appeared in 2022.

JB: At first glance the European Commission might not appear a promising subject for a novel. What made you write The Capital?

RM: The European Commission isn’t the subject of the novel. Novels don’t have subjects; they’re not essays. Let’s talk instead about what the novel is trying to do. The fundamental aim of every novel (or ought to be) is to capture its time in a narrative. To tell the story in a way that allows contemporaries to recognise themselves, and those in the future to understand the period. To take an example: how do I know about the life, living conditions and social contradictions in nineteenth-century London, a global metropolis at the time? Because I’ve read Charles Dickens. By reading his novels I know more than from history lessons. And this is precisely the aim of my novel too. To tell readers about how life was in my lifetime! I don’t believe you can talk about our lives without also describing the milieu and circumstances in which we live. And what defines our lives these days? The European Union and globalisation, of course. They produce the laws and the dynamic forces that encroach upon our lives. Everyone reacts to them, whether knowingly or not. All success and failure are determined by them. For my novel The Capital I entered the engine room, so to speak, in which the conditions of our lives are generated. I wanted to talk about what nobody had before: how all of this comes about. In Die Erweiterung (Enlargement) I made the narrative field broader. I discuss people’s lives, hopes, obstacles and failures in a Europe that’s defined by contradictions and historical amnesia. This is the natural stuff of novels, not a subject.

Was it clear from the outset that the novel had to be a satire?

The novel isn’t a satire. None of it. What I tried to do was to describe and reflect on reality as precisely and clear-sightedly as possible. If in places you get the impression you’re reading a satire, this is down to reality rather than the author. Yes, it’s true that readers laugh out loud when they read my novels. But it’s not my intention to be funny. Besides, I believe that these days the comic is ultimately tragic. And this is how I see myself as a novelist. As an expert, no, more than that, as a seismograph of the tragicomic.

In Die Erweiterung, the sequel to The Capital, you look at the eastern enlargement of the EU.. Given the current war in Ukraine, how do you see the future eastern expansion of Europe?

It should be obvious that the Balkans are part of Europe. The Balkans have always been a powder keg. It should be recognised that a fuse is burning there again. And it shouldn’t be hard to explain that the future solution to the problems in this region is the region’s integration into the European peace project and legal framework. What about Ukraine? The way this country is defending itself against the aggressor is admirable and of course its efforts must be supported. But the wording of EU leaders (for example, the president of the European Commission) on this point is sadly wrong, even grotesque. We’re always hearing that Ukraine is ‘defending European values’, which is nonsense; the Ukrainians are defending life and freedom in their country. They don’t want to live under the yoke of a crazed imperialist aggressor and dictator. This ought to be enough for us to offer every means of help imaginable. But we must realise that the heroic resistance in Ukraine is also the start of something that radically contradicts the idea of the EU and its values, namely nation building. The EU came about as a result of the experiences of nationalism, which laid waste to Europe and half of the world. The fundamental idea of the EU is to set in motion a post-national development, a post-national democratic legal framework. In Ukraine, however, the heroic tales are now being written which form the basis for a powerful national identity.

Die Erweiterung highlights another challenge to Europe: the trend towards right-wing populist government. How dangerous is this development for the European project?

It is the main danger. In the first half of the twentieth century nationalism showed the consequences of its destructive energies. The radical return to nationalism of some European states at the moment is eerie. Nowadays we are facing crises and threats that no nation can overcome on its own, although this is precisely what people are demanding from their individual governments and it is classic nationalism: us for ourselves in opposition to all others. Unto our downfall. The problem is that we’re able to elect our own national heads of government and that they, to get elected, have to promise voters national solutions. These don’t exist, but that’s how the system is. In the EU, national heads of state and government are supposed to decide on common policy within the Council. But there aren’t any decisions because vetoes keep being exercised so that the national electorates back home can see national sovereignty and national interests being defended. This doesn’t solve problems either within the EU or in the individual nations; it’s political obstruction, unproductive and totally idiotic, but that’s how the system is. It encourages right-wing populism. Every populist leader on the right has to fail, of course, but rather than realise that this approach isn’t working, people say that the politician wasn’t resolute enough. And then they elect a more radical individual. Or the leader becomes more radical to cling on to power, as we’ve seen in Hungary and Poland. In 1945 it seemed as if people had learned from their mistakes. Now we’ve returned to the normal state of affairs: people never learn.

After the Second World War Austria tried to distance itself from Germany and the crimes of the Third Reich, thereby encouraging the development of what might be viewed as an artificial Austrian identity. Do you nevertheless think that Austria’s multinational history has given it a particularly European destiny? And to what extent could your strong pro-European feeling be based on the fact that you are yourself Austrian?

I think it’s perfectly possible that Austria’s history has subconsciously given me a different, more pronounced understanding of Europe than authors from other countries. For what was the Habsburg Monarchy if, stripping it of its myths and kitsch, we look at it with an open mind? It was a large common market with a common administration and devoid of a national idea. This ought to be familiar to Europeans today. And this political entity collapsed because it was destroyed by nationalists, not because it didn’t work, but. What is interesting is that all the nations created on the territory of the former Habsburg Monarchy (with the exception of Czechoslovakia) didn’t enjoy a single day of sovereignty, freedom, rule of law and growing prosperity, but only experienced war, civil war, terror, Fascist and Stalinist occupation, dictatorship, misery and poverty – until these countries acceded to the post-national EU. This should be food for thought. But it’s true, Austria after 1945 – out of political pragmatism to distance itself from German guilt – has constructed an idea of nationhood that may be ridiculous but has worked. Even the most ridiculous national idea is dangerous, however, for the very reason that it promotes nationalism. And we can see today where this leads in Austria’s European policy. The mongrels who believe they constitute a racially pure Austria need to be serviced and satisfied. I’ve never understood the concept of an Austrian nation. I’ve got the same passport as a Tyrolean. But what else do I have in common with a Tyrolean as far as an ethnic, linguistic, cultural or any other national idea is concerned? Does a passport, which is obsolete in Europe anyway, create in itself a national community? I don’t understand this. I can have friends in Tyrol, but I have no feelings of home there. And I can also have friends in Alentejo or in the Peloponnese and find both places beautiful without the feelings of home I only have in Vienna and the north of Austria, by the Czech border where I grew up. Why does one part of Tyrol belong to the Italian nation, while the other part belongs to the Austrian nation? This is a striking example of how arbitrary and irrational the concept of ‘nation’ is. And why aren’t the Kurds who live in Turkey and Syria, but don’t feel they belong to either, permitted to establish their own state? And so on, and so on. The European idea seems far more sensible, humane and, in the light of history, more progressive. But enough of politics – I’m a novelist!

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