The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil draws a sardonic, often hilarious but always doom-shadowed portrait of the sclerotic Austro-Hungarian empire in 1913, on the eve of its extinction. An engineer and decorated officer before he turned to fiction, Musil calls his tottering Hapsburg homeland "Kakania" after the initials of the monarchy's Imperial and Royal (Kaiserlich und Koniglich) title. Kakania means "Crapland", which - with some affection but huge exasperation - is more or less how Musil depicts the state. Towards the end of last year, Picador re-released his masterpiece in the definitive English translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike (pounds 15). Consciously or not, the timing was impeccable.
Musil's eponymous hero - the sceptical, stand-offish Ulrich - lands a cushy civil-service job with the so-called "Parallel Campaign". This is a vague high-minded project to mark Emperor Franz Josef's 70 years on the Kakanian throne with a grand but hard-to-define public jamboree. Its hidden purpose, as it happens, is to stuff the Germans. Sounds familiar? The resemblance grows truly uncanny as its mastermind Count Leinsdorf (Musil's Mandelson) juggles with pretentious blueprints, plays off bumptious "creative" types against each other and battles with a mood of apathy and mockery. A motif that signals the drift and division of a tired old country avid for a fresh image, the Campaign moves irregularly in and out of Musil's plot. When it does surface, no British reader in 1998 can fail to see that crown of masts planted on its toxic site. Musil gave to the second part of his novel the diagnostic title "Pseudoreality Prevails". And the third? "Into the Millennium".
Spellbound by feuds and tittle-tattle, the chattering classes of Musil's Vienna miss the rising tension betwen militant nationalism and multi-ethnic tolerance that will wreck their cafe society. At the end, Ulrich jokes that the sarky populace could only be jolted into fervour by some "Millennial War of Religion". As they gossip over the costly, nebulous shindig, his men and women of 1913 hold a startling mirror up to their counterparts, 85 years on. Smart but smug, they never spotted the fuse that led to August 1914 until it blew them into history. To a great novelist writing in the year 2020, what sort of looming truth will the Millennium Follies of 1998 conceal from view?