Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 tells the story of Thomas Foley, a rather bland British civil servant who works for the Central Office of Information, as he is dispatched to the first World’s Fair since WWII. His role? To keep an eye on the pub Britannia, a key element of the British presence in Brussels. The son of a Flemish mother and a publican father, Foley seems to be the man for the job. So, leaving behind his wife Sylvia and their baby girl, Foley escapes to Brussels, where he falls under the spell of the Atomium as much as of Anneke, one of the Fair’s hostesses. But shadowing him are two British secret service agents who remind him that his duties are to his country and that he has a small role to play in the cold war between the Americans and the Russians.
I was looking forward to reading Expo 58 on two accounts. Firstly, it’s a novel by Jonathan Coe, whose satirical novel What a Carve-Up! is widely seen as a modern classic but which I haven’t got around to reading yet. The second reason I was looking forward to Expo 58 is that it is set in Brussels, a city that is rarely the setting for any fiction, let alone fiction by English-language writers. But the novel never really takes off, never develops into anything.
The Fair apparently drew over 41 million visitors in six months but from the novel you get the impression that besides Foley and Anneke and a few other people, there weren’t really all that many people. You certainly don’t get much of a feel for the fair, the visitors, the national pavilions. Neither do you get any sense of Foley’s attraction to the modernity that the fair represents, not least in the construction of the Atomium. I’m not sure, but I think he doesn’t even visit it. Neither is the novel about Foley’s Flemish ancestors whose house was destroyed in the First World War, when his mother fled to England. Neither is it about Foley’s mariage or his fling with the fair’s hostess. Nor is it about British insularity. Nor is it really a spy novel, nor a comic novel. So what’s it about exactly? I don’t know. Foley’s blandness? His lack of choice? His lack of courage? The life not lived? All or none of these? Who knows…
In the acknowledgements, Coe claims that it was an interview he gave at the Atomium in September 2010 that sparked his fascination for this ‘extraordinary’ building and ‘soon afterwards the whole history of Expo 58.’ But somewhere along the way – early along the way – his fascination seems to have petered out. Instead of engaging with his subject and thereby engaging his readers, he seems to turned away from it.
Jonathan Coe will be at the Atomium on 16 October for the launch of his novel in both English and in the Dutch translation: tickets available from the international house of literature in Brussels, PassaPorta. And on 15 October Coe kicks off Passa Porta’s new reading club with a discussion of his novel The Rotters’ Club: tickets available from PassaPorta also (limited seating availability).