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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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Speaking in Tongues – an interview with Diego Marani

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Diego Marani is so obsessed by language that he has created one of his own. Europanto, a delightful mix of French, English, German, Spanish, Italian and absurdity, features regularly in the Italian novelist, translator and Eurocrat’s newspaper columns. “Por speak Europanto tu just mix parolas from differente linguas und voila che tu esse perfecte Europanto speakante. Europanto necessite keine study tu just improviste, invente und  siempre esse fluente.”

Here in Australia for the Sydney Writer’s Festival and a brief visit to Melbourne at the Italian Institute of Culture, there is, says Marani, a serious side to this “provocation” of an invented language: the more we borrow words and phrases from each other’s languages, the more connected we become to one another. He frowns on linguistic preciousness (I suspect he has little time for the Académie Franҫaise). In Brussels, his current day job consists of co-ordinating language programmes at universities throughout Europe to promote multi-lingualism and his latest novel to be translated into English – The Last of the Vostyachs – features the last speaker of an almost dead language, which has roots that spread from the Balkans to the indigenous languages of North America. The novel’s message is clear: nationalism is dangerous and we are enriched by the cultures of others.

Marani’s passion for language developed early. Born in Ferrara in 1959, he was intrigued by his grandparents’ Italian dialect. Forbidden at school in favour of pure Tuscan, fewer and fewer people were speaking “Ferrarese”, yet it has a particular Italian richness which is ideal for story-telling. Marani recalls the delight of absorbing an ancient tradition and at the same time understood that this secret knowledge also set him apart. “I saw the link between language and identity and it is one I have continued to explore”.

This is especially true of Marani’s novel, New Finnish Grammar, which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award and the Best Translated Book Award. Set in 1943, the central protagonist has lost both his memory and his language. Found wounded and dressed in the uniform of a Finnish sailor, he is sent back to Finland to reaclimatise himself with his heritage. Yet “Sampo” cannot relate to fiendishly complex Finnish as a language, nor to the bleakness of the Finnish landscape. To know a language is ultimately to know oneself, and Sampo’s desperate floundering on both counts drives Marani’s narrative.

Sampo’s plight in some ways recalls Marani’s own, as he too struggled to learn Finnish, and he voiced much of his own sense of isolation in the novel. “Fifteen cases – this is not a language, this is a torture!”, he jokes. At the same time, he recognises that learning another language also creates multiple levels of personality.

“When you learn to speak another language, your facial expressions change to reflect the personality of that language. You open your mouth wider when you speak Italian, you close your mouth tighter when you speak English. You wear a different face for each language, a different mask.  Language learning gives you a more profound awareness of the human condition but I am also aware that it gives you a more complex and perhaps indefinite identity.”

He has written about these many-faced identities in his latest novel “Il Cacciatore di Talenti” (The Talent Hunter) which has not yet been translated into English, and which tells stories of Italians living and working abroad. Currently, he is working on a book about work, in particular stories of people whose lives have been devastated by the loss of a job or the need to migrate.

Hopefully, the book will have an optimistic flavour, as his characters rediscover new versions of themselves and reinvent their lives in a new setting. After all, much of their personality will be shaped by the acquisition of language. “And at that point boundaries blur – speaking a language is like learning a musical instrument. Each has their own rules but all languages are like music, which is the most universal language of all.”

New Finnish Grammar and Last of the Vostyachs are both published by Text.