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An Uneasy Entente Cordiale: on the Trail of Expo 58

 

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EXPO 58 by Jonathan Coe      Penguin     $23.95

As we approach the end of the year, I thought I’d review something lighter and more amusing, in keeping with the forthcoming holiday season. Looking over my list this year, it’s been predominantly serious, with the exception of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, which continues to do exceptionally well both in Australia and abroad.

Expo 58 was published earlier this year and is one of those books on my list to read for a while.  I hadn’t realised that Brussels had hosted an international exhibition in 1958. The Expo saw pavilions from all around the world erected to showcase the best of international design, art, and lifestyle.  Brussels’ famous Atomium was built to display contemporary engineering, science and creativity in the Exhibition Park. Mandarins, intellectuals and the media swarmed to Brussels to see what the post-war world had to offer.  With what’s described in the book as ‘an example of the Belgian sense of humour’, the US and Russian pavilions (remember, we’re at the height of the Cold War) nestled uncomfortably side by side in a public show of uneasy harmony.

Coe takes the Expo as a starting point for a farce on British mores and international relations. He blends elements of Ealing comedy and Le Carre (with more than a touch of David Lodge) to concoct an irresistible, fast-paced read that’s guaranteed to make you smile – if you appreciate an anglophile sense of the ridiculous.

Thomas is a lowly pen pusher in the Central Office of Information. He’s given the chance to escape his boring public service job and suburban marriage to travel to Brussels and be part of the British delegation at the Expo. His task is ostensibly to oversee the running of the Brittania, a replica of a British pub which takes pride of place near the British pavilion. However, he’s soon caught up in a network of hush-hush activity. Under the guise of camaraderie over a pint, the British, the Russians and the Americans are obviously spying on each other. Plus, there’s Anneke, the beautiful Flemish hostess, who soon captures his attention. Where, in more ways than one, do Thomas’ loyalties lie?

Reading this at a time when Indonesia and Australia are caught up in a “who spied on whom?” scandal, and the recent revelations of American and British phone tapping, Coe’s novel seems both prescient and topical. Plus ҫa change etc etc.  His novel doesn’t pretend to be anything more than lighthearted. And yet, it resonates with profound truths about Great Britain’s attitude to its neighbours  pre EU (usually condescending), a fact that’s particularly ironic considering Britain’s woeful state in 1958.

Having just emerged from rationing and a devastating war, Britain was struggling to get back on her feet. Riddled by a suffocating class system, insular, bridling with suspicion and prejudice against anything new and foreign, the country was stagnating. The liberation of the 60s was yet to occur. No wonder Thomas views a stint at the Expo as a chance to escape his stifling existence.  Here’s his (admittedly naïve) view of all the Expo has to offer, when he first arrives in Brussels: “Here for the next six months, would be thrown together all the nations whose complex relationships, whose conflicts and alliances, whose fraught, tangled histories, had shaped and would continue to shape the destiny of mankind.”

All this seems to be epitomised by the structure of the Atomium itself, which Coe describes as “this brilliant folly… a giant latticework of spheres, unperishable, interconnected, each one emblematic of that tiny mysterious unit man had so recently learned to divide and conquer: the atom. The very sight of it set his heart pounding”.

Of course, the novel is a gradual exploration of loss of innocence. And there are flashes of the real price countries had to pay after the Second World War. Here and there are reminiscences of villages pillaged, houses burned, friends deported, lives in ruin.  But the underpinning seriousness of the message is always deflated by farce and fun.

This is epitomised by the delicious cartoon characters, Mr Wayne and Mr Radford (we never learn their first names), two secret service men in black who recruit Thomas to the cause. With dialogue straight out of PG Wodehouse, a habit of finishing each other’s sentences and a penchant for tortuous language: “He had the sachet and the packet in the pocket of his jacket”, they’re a comedy duo, caricatured spies who come in from the cold with very English flair.

So if you’re lazing on a beach this summer digging into a raspberry Pav, or tucked up with a hot toddy and Christmas pud  and turkey leftovers near a blazing fire, Expo 58 is a good companion. Definitely recommended.

 

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