This is a smart, entertaining sprawl of a book that dissects, chides, and pays homage to the European Union.
A prologue flags the busy narrative that lies ahead: As a pig runs loose on the streets of Brussels, five of the main characters are introduced, tied to a trade dispute, a pan-European project, and a murder that is possibly linked to NATO and the Vatican. Pig references abound, revealing both the complexities of trade deals and the author’s impish side. Menasse (Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits: Or Why the Democracy Given to Us Must Become One We Fight For, 2016, etc.), an Austrian who won Germany’s top literary prize for this novel, has many threads to weave. Like Musil in The Man Without Qualities, he has fun with efforts to organize something grand to celebrate an anniversary, here the 50th of the European Commission’s founding (he even parodies that book’s opening passage). The narrative mosaic’s main tiles concern the commission’s bureaucratic circus, its subtle and petty power games. Menasse conveys a broad range of the human comedy with brisk, sometimes-mordant prose—and the guidance of a fine translator. Here are two bureaucrats in their first tryst: “He faked desire for her; she faked an orgasm. The chemistry was right.” Through it all is the steady message that more unites the people of the European Union than divides them. The narrative reinforces this with personal histories that cross borders and intersect. There are also two disparate characters following different paths to a similar vision of “the commonality of Europeans,” born, like the commission itself, from a hope to never again let nationalist madness become Holocaust. Each makes unsettling use of Auschwitz, however, and some speechifying that turns a message of story-borne subtlety into neon glare. These are rare missteps in this ambitious panorama that arrives amid the throes of Brexit and the Chinese Year of the Pig.
Intelligent, fun, sad, insightful—an exceptional work.