His novel The Capital, which delves deeply into the EU institutions in Brussels, brought great reviews to Robert Minas and a German Book Prize in 2017. Now the Austrian is offering some sort of sequel. “The Extension” plays a big role in Albania – the middle part of a trilogy, the author revealed in an interview with APA. As far as getting into his characters, he doesn’t pursue specific goals when writing: “I don’t want to educate or educate anyone.”
APA: Mr. Menasse, “The Extension” is read in many respects as a continuation of “Capital”. When did you realize there had to be such a thing as follow-up?
Robert Minas: When I began to treat the European Union as a literary subject, I quickly realized that it was impossible to tell everything that was going on in just one novel. So I planned a trilogy from the start, with three focal points. But each novel must be able to read independently of the others, and together they must unfold a jigsaw.
APA: So what comes at the end — and when?
Minas: It’s hard to say when the third volume will come out, because I’ll be living in another European city for a while. I don’t want to say more yet, volume two just came out.
Apa: Brussels, as a scene, is clear, but what happened in the “expansion” of Tirana? How did you come to focus on Albania as one of the candidate countries for the upcoming expansion?
Minas: First of all: I think it’s also important and interesting to look at the countries that want to join the European Union. Their mindsets, their cultures, their histories, all of that will become a part of us for the foreseeable future, and another part of our unity in diversity. Also political: the problems or possibilities of the Western Balkans, for example, have become our domestic politics. Albania shows a very typical picture of a candidate to join the European Union: the high hopes and expectations the population places in joining the European Union, the current prime minister won the elections because he promised to lead the country into the European Union, and demanded great efforts to make reforms. by Brussels and what it does to the people, the political and cultural contradictions, the embargo by EU member states, etc.
APA: The helmet of Skanderbeg, a medieval Albanian prince, plays a major role in your novel. How did you come across this?
Minas: It’s impossible not to come across Skanderbeg in Albania. He is the greatest national hero, he was the first to unite the Albanian tribes, he was the founder of the Albanian identity, so to speak. He defended the Christian West against the Ottomans in many battles. I also found this very interesting: that this so-called Athleta Christi is the greatest national hero for a Muslim-majority country. But one thing is particularly important: With the character of Skanderbeg, Albania has something that the European Union itself does not have: a symbol of synergy and unity. And in this sense I played with this character in the novel, or rather his helmet, which is a universal emblem in Albania. By the way, the helmet is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
APA: …so it was stolen.
Manasseh: Yes, that was easy in the novel, like Celera at the time. Anyway, it’s about the mind game: Who wears the Skanderbeg helmet is symbolically the Prince of All Dairies – and then? You have to know that Albanians are the largest ethnic group in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, Macedonia, in western Greece, southern Italy, hundreds of thousands of Albanians live everywhere. And what if they all, no matter what state they live in, tied their allegiance to the man in command? The idea of Greater Albania turns the Balkans into a powder keg once again. It all started, when I was in Tirana, the Albanian foreign minister suggested that Albania and Kosovo elect a joint president. This is of course impossible in terms of realpolitik, but it is a beautiful example of symbolic politics, the disease of our time, put forward simply as an idea. You send signals that make people move, trigger feelings, fantasies, the trigger is unreal but has an impact because so many people believe in that fantasy. This got me busy. Replace Austrian neutrality with the helmet, to name only.
APA: You describe Albania very clearly. How intense is the site search? Are there actually models for individual personalities?
Minas: The research seems very journalistic. I live with pleasure and necessity in the places of my novels. And I try to talk to as many people as possible, and try to understand them, what’s on their minds, how they see things, what they hope for, what frustrates them. There is no individual then a true role model for a character in the novel, but the genres appear to me. This results in a web of stories, which in turn also serve to move the imagination, but also the desire to arrange them, because even what does not work in reality must function as a novel.
Appa: Have you lived in Tirana for as many months as before, the “capital” in Brussels?
Manasseh: Yes, and I toured Albania with an interpreter. At first I received great help from Aryan Lika, a professor of Albanian literature and an important and knowledgeable author, and from artist Vati Village, who came to Austria as a refugee in the 1980s, learned German in Traiskirchen and is now a member of the Albanian parliament. The Austrian Embassy in Tirana also helped me make initial contacts in Tirana.
APA: I read The Extension as a great novel about the time period that actually makes political connections plastic and transparent using individual characters. What is the size of your educational or enlightening claim when writing?
Manasseh: This was neither my claim. I don’t want to teach or educate anyone. I just want to be able to share what is happening in my life, especially the circumstances of our lives, the circumstances that we did not create or choose for ourselves but are a part of that affect our lives, whether we want to or not. I firmly believe that this is the task of the novel: to tell its contemporary. I write today as it was then, but then I am still now.
APA: In “Extension”, events are colored not least by actors in Eastern and Southeast Europe. Here the novel contains aspects of farce, fable, fable, but also of criminal fiction. The clash with quiet and unemotional Western politics brings tension but also entertains the plot. Literary hoax or part of your perception of political processes in the European Union?
Minas: These aspects simply appear when you tell a story, because life has these aspects. It never occurred to me that an adjustment would be needed here or there, but I do think a lot about how to tell a story appropriately. I have conclusively succeeded in doing it, I believe, when I can be the one I’m talking about. When I write, I sometimes do what is called the method of acting in film. And so I’m sometimes silly, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, depending on what character I’m writing and the situation that character is in. To do this, of course, I must know the biographies of the characters, and I must know more about the characters than I then tell them. In fact, I don’t tell everyone about my whole life. But her knowledge of the characters is essential for them to move reasonably through the novel. Is this perhaps a literary trick?
APA: In recent years, the European Union has faced enormous problems to overcome. How did you manage this huge situation? How do you assess how the EU’s main peace project deals with the challenge of the Ukraine war?
Minas: How has the European Union been able to achieve this in a big way? Haven’t done it yet. Or is there already a common European energy policy? European foreign, security and defense policy? Europe has a common currency, but is there a common fiscal policy? Is there an effort towards a common social policy that balances the output of European economic policy in terms of social inequalities and distortions? All this is necessary to overcome the problems we are facing. But maybe all this is yet to come?
However, I think basic solidarity with and support for Ukraine is good and important. We in Austria are overwhelmingly grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who did not defend themselves when the aggressor entered. The last chancellor, nothing but Zelensky, said in his radio address in which he surrendered and revealed to the country that he did not want bloodshed. Then, the Austrians had to experience that their cheerful surrender did not prevent bloodshed, murder, robbery, terror and finally war, on the contrary. That is why it is disgraceful that solidarity with Ukraine and sanctions against Russia is called into question in Austria, from so many people to business representatives. The anti-refugee mood has already returned. And this brings us back to Europe: Do we have a common European policy for immigration and refugees? No. Nationalist need this situation as a national problem.
APA: How do you see the real EU enlargement process in the coming years? Is he dead? Or is it still a necessary drive?
Minas: The European Union will either collapse due to its internal contradictions and systemic inadequacy, or it will have to develop and grow together further if there is another risk of demise. I strongly support the enlargement process, and in particular the accession of the Balkan countries, because the peace project can once again do justice to its name and idea. But please do not expand without further development. Otherwise, the EU will only have a few commissioners whose departments must be invented, a few other countries that see Brussels as an ATM where you can withdraw money, and a few heads of government in the council who have the option to use the right Veto against everything that is prohibited.
Apa: Austria is a marginal spectacle of ‘extension’. Is there something about domestic politics that might appeal to you as a starting point for a novel – or has it finally gotten ridiculous in recent years?
Minas: Austria, specifically Vienna and Lower Austria, this is my homeland. This is good and beautiful. But I don’t write Heimatroman. Especially with our political figures as numbers. Or would you say they are numbers after all?
APA: Of course: marginal characters who act as main characters. All you have to do as a writer is decide: is it a comedy or a tragedy?
Minas: It’s not that simple. A novel that tells of tragedy and comedy. It can even be one and the same as what some experience as a comedy and some as a tragedy. Austria is very close to me. Tragedy – it’s funny. or the other way.
(Wolfgang Huber-Lang/APA asked questions via email)
(Service – Robert Minas: “The Extension”, Suhrkamp Verlag, 654 pages, €29.50, Published: October 10, ISBN 978-3-518-43080-4; reading and discussion with Klaus Zieringer: Sunday, October 9, 3pm, As part of the event “Tell Europe. Change Europe.” in Hartberg, “Haus Leben”, Michaeligasse 10. www.hausleben.at)