Austrian writer Robert Menasse’s The Capital (translated from German by Jamie Bulloch) has been called ‘the first EU novel’. We talked to him about political writing and his belief in the EU as a transnational project.
What do you think about the relationship between politics and literature? Is literature political?
At the moment when literature does justice to what it claims for itself, even the literature of apolitical authors is political. And for a simple reason: literature, like art in general, is one of the possible pathways to truth. And the truth is always revolutionary – because we live in ideologically complex systems of perception and have, consciously or unconsciously, veiled reality around us. To that extent the search for truth alone is a political project. There are people, artists, writers who do this consciously, and there are artists who do it unconsciously, with an incomprehensible and inexplicable instinct. That is the difference between Kafka and Brecht.
Give me an example from contemporary literature.
Let me answer that metaphorically. There are artists who build their art like bees build their honeycombs. The bees have no plan, but they build in infinite perfection. And then there are artists who are architects. Everything already exists in their heads. They can reflect on what they do, they can plan it. Of course, there are also mixed forms. There are people who already know what they are doing, but leave a lot of room for instinctive things. In contemporary literature I’m observing an interesting phenomenon. Many authors started their careers with certain political commitments. And they have all now become silent. There is almost an unspoken consensus in this generation: that there is no point. One of the last politically committed authors was Günter Grass. When he died I said that a literary epoch had come to an end.
For my part, I was influenced by authors like Dickens, Èmile Zola, Balzac and Victor Hugo; later also by Latin American literature, which is a great narrative literature, always in opposition to a multitude of dictatorships. So it’s no surprise that I am who I am now. However, I am not at all interested in turning myself into a schizophrenic person: I don’t want anyone to think that I’m an artist one day and an activist the next. When I get politically involved, I do so as an artist. That’s important to me.
It sometimes feels to me as if certain contemporary ‘national’ literatures are more political than others.
Well, let me give you an example of political literature from the UK where there is no obvious political intention, but where there clearly are political and analytical implications: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which in a way tells the story of the fall of a political empire through a single character.
But Ishiguro wrote this novel twenty years ago. His work has changed since then.
I think that this mood (of not engaging politically via your art) is really getting stronger and stronger – to my great regret. It’s as if people think, ‘When everything is going down the drain, then at least I want to create something beautiful, but there is no point in getting involved in anything.’ On the one hand that is regrettable. On the other hand I’m actually quite happy when certain artists don’t say anything anymore because I have noticed that they are simply not very well-informed. When you talk about the EU with writers, you notice that they simply have no idea what’s going on. Then again, I am very grateful for Elfriede Jelinek – for either putting her finger on the wound or, in an ingenious double stroke, for throwing salt into the wound.
Jelinek and you are of a certain generation of politically engaged writers. For me that begs the question of what comes next – in my generation, for example.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but that is irrelevant. In the end, we have to judge the artistic and aesthetic quality of a work – and its implications, no matter what the author thought. I always like to remember what the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács said: that a work of art is only a work of art if it is smarter than the author.
Let’s talk about the nation state. If the nation state really dies, and this is the ideological goal, then many hurdles must be overcome that have to do with the indoctrination of the people. What must happen for that to happen? I am thinking above all of the media, sport, etc., all of which are in tune with the fact that the nation state is important.
One thing must be said in advance, you cannot abolish the nation state. You can’t sit down and dismantle it. It is a process that operates, just like all historical processes, with many small steps. At the moment when the nation state can no longer do what we expect it to do, it will also stop functioning as a source of identity. Because it’s not simply down to the idea that I need a national identity, because otherwise I wouldn’t know who I am. We expect the nation state to fulfil certain tasks. There will indeed be desperate attempts to equip it radically with everything we expect from it – a brief flourishing of nationalism. But it is clear that it will die in the long run because it can no longer solve many problems: finance, the internet, ecological problems, they are transnational. What we need instead is an upgraded, functional European parliament.
We must also bear in mind how young the idea of the nation is. My grandparents lived in a state and society that had no national idea, but that worked on the basis of a common market, a common currency, a common bureaucracy: the Habsburg Empire. It was destroyed by nationalism. Nationalism as an idea has blood on its hands.
Robert Menasse was born in Vienna in 1954 and studied there before moving to Brazil, where he lived for six years as a professor of literature at the University of São Paulo. He is the author of several novels translated into English, including Wings of Stone and Reverse Thrust, and of a work of non-fiction, Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits: Or Why the Democracy Given to Us Must Become One We Fight for (2016). In 2017 he was awarded the German Book Prize for Die Hauptstadt (The Capital), which is out in English now, translated by Jamie Bulloch.
Interview conducted and translated by Theodora Danek. With thanks to Corinna Zifko for participating in the conversation.