Here it is: The first major novel about the inner workings of European politics in our capital, Brussels. While the tone is often light and ironic, this book is whip-smart when it dissects the many conflict lines that we are struggling with in the EU, on a continent steeped in blood, where history is always also personal history and different views collide all. the. time. Democracy means to acknowledge and handle conflict, and to do that is sometimes hard - so hard in fact, that some people seem to think that nationalism, isolationism, or authoritarianism are the solution (yeah, why not repeat the same mistakes ad inifinitum? *sigh*). But the majority of EU citizens, especially young people all over the continent, want the European project to succeed - the EU didn't receive the Nobel Peace Prize for nothing.
Menasse, an Austrian, turns the people within the apparatus - who in the news mostly remain anonymous and are referred to as "bureaucrats", "lobbyists", and "experts" - into the protagonists of this tale. They have different backgrounds, their families are affected differently by European history (there is an Italian count, a Greek Cypriot, a Holocaust survivor, a Czech EU worker whose sister marries a right-wing, anti-EU politician and many others), they represent national governments or entities with different interests and many work within EU departments with conflicting aims (this might at first sound surprising, but it's normal even on the national and the state level: The Minister for Economy often has different aims than the Minister for the Environment, for example). On top of that, there's always the human factor: Many characters are in career politics, they have personal goals and power tactics - this is European "House of Cards".
There are two main narrative strands that hold the story together and connect the cast of characters: The Big Jubilee Project that aims to improve the image of the Commission, and a conflict over a trade deal with China concerning pigs - so we are dealing with bread-and-butter trade policy and the PR aspect of the EU. Anyone who is familiar with the inner workings of politics (on any level) will recognize classic dynamics here, but they are complicated by the factor of different countries joining in. Menasse's genius is to fill these discussions, that some people might suspect to be dry, with life by showing what's at stake for the individuals involved, how all of this relates to their personal history, how they are torn between the European mission (most of them are no cynics, but believers), national politics and personal vanity, and how the strict bureaucratic rules can deform people and stifle the vision that is so desperately needed.
Sometimes Menasse is overreaching a little: I wouldn't have needed the whole "criminal conspiracy" storyline, and the actual pig which might be running through or just reported to be running through Brussels is the reason why I refrained from reading this book for almost two years (in German, there is the term "eine neue Sau durchs Dorf treiben" (to chase a new sow through the village), which means that a topic gets hyped up and then dropped for a new topic, thus creating circles of discussions without any consequences). But all in all, this book is a real feat: We need stories like that to fill abstract concepts with life and stimulate discussion.
So I'm actually fine with this winning the German Book Prize 2017. And you can check out the #Europa22 campaign on twitter: Menasse lets one of his protagonists suggest European instead of national passports, and the Austrian band Bilderbuch just started a viral pro-EU campaign that features just that - all kinds of people already take part, from the German foreign minister to late night host Jan Böhmermann. You can also join the movement: https://bilderbucheuropa.love/
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