Jonathan Coe is one of my favourite authors, a witty and wise chronicler of British mores, foibles and eccentricities who, in terms of book sales, is apparently appreciated even more on the Continent than he is at home – but isn’t that always the way with satirists who hit too close to home? This seems especially relevant here as this is one of those books about an Englishman abroad, a typically clever and beguiling mixture of character, thrills, comedy and movies …
“Your man?” said Thomas, his eyes slowly coming back into focus.
“Our man, yes. Our man in Brussels”
Some encounters are of course destined to change your life in meaningful ways and some of these tipping points come to define one’s personal history – the trick is to recognise them for what they are at the time and act on them. Alas, for most of us, this only becomes clear with hindsight, thus we are only able to impose a shape on our personal history in recollection, when everything in the telling tends to conform to the needs of what one might term, gerentologically speaking, anecdotage. But there are moments when you know, you can feel deep down, that this just such a turning point – it can be frightening and exciting. But too often we let the moment slip by, too intimidated to commit to the unknown and instead retreat to the devil we know. This is the theme explored in Coe’s new novel, a comic extravaganza based on fact telling a story of Cold War intrigue during the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.
“We don’t really know who we are, until a new circumstance comes along to reveal it to us”
The first thing to say is that, like his previous book, The Extraordinary Privacy of Maxwell Sim, this is a fairly short and compact work (my edition is under 300 pages long) and is not especially expansive. It also pretty much eschews Coe’s trademark postmodern flourishes in favour of a more straightforward telling of an ironic Cold War story very much in ther style of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, a work incidentally that was also a big influence on John le Carr’s The Tailor of Panama. In all three cases we have a milquetoast protagonist, here named Martin Foley, who gets involved in events bigger than himself, putting pressure on his domestic life in the process.
“When you go home at the end of the Expo, you will forget all about me. The pull of your own country, and your own culture, is much too strong.”
Foley works for the UK’s Central Office of Information, the government’s propaganda and publicity department, and leads a very suburban life in Tooting – he has nice wife and young baby daughter and puts up with a neighbour he doesn’t like very much – so far so average. But he was brought up by a mother who fled Belgium during the first World War, and who has refused to go back as the rest of the family, including Foley’s father, was killed. Due to this background Foley is picked to look after the British pavilion, at the Expo, which mainly consists of a mock-up of a traditional pub named, inevitably, ‘Britannia.’ His wife is not that happy about his being away for up to six months, but the opportunity for career advancement is too good to miss. Right away Foley makes friends with Anneke, a sweet young Belgian woman who works as a guide at the Expo and we assume that the two might start an affair, but the Cold War background keeps getting in the way such as the intrusions of two british spies Naunton and Radford, a journalist who may be a KGB spy, a british invention, the Zeta Machine, that goes missing overnight and so on. But the meat of the book is to be found in some splendid set pieces such as when Foley is cleared by the secret service in a new style coffee bar, a discussion at high levels about whether the British invention of the water closet will or won’t become a part of the pavilion exhibit, a kidnapping in which the getaway car is much too small for both passengers; and best of all, a long exchange of letters between Foley and his wife in which the tone changes quite noticeably from loving support to acidic rebuke though not, apparently, to the participants
“Of course I’m Mr Foley. Do we have to go through all this palaver? Do you see anybody else reading De Standaard in this corner of the park?”
“You’re reading page twenty-three. I told you to open it as page twenty-seven.”
“There are only twenty-four pages.”
“Oh, really? I should have thought of that. Blast.”
When it comes to fiction I can still remember being shaken and stirred by such masterpieces as Wuthering Heights (1847), Anna Karenina (1877) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Of the great books published in my lifetime, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), The World According to Garp (1978) and Midnight’s Children (1980) remain personal milestones, as does Jonathan Coe’s extraordinary evocation of Thatcher’s Britain,What a Carve Up!
This book can’t live up to that extravagant masterpiece, it’s too fact-based for one thing and has too restricted a cast of characters for that matter to expand beyond certain set confines. But it has much too offer and is very typical of the writer’s output. For one thing, Coe is a great movie lover – The House of Sleep is full of references to Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes for instance while Coe’s What a Carve Up! is named after the little-known British comedy of the same name starring Shirley Eaton and Sid James that obsesses one of the characters.
In Expo 58 what we are offered is an amusing look at Britain at a time of transition, when it was having to adjust to the loss of the Empire, couched in the form of a light, Hitchcockian spy thriller. Therefore it makes sense that there be an hommage of sort, which is to be found in the two spymasters, Naunton and Radford, who are named after the actors Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford who played the cricket-obsessed gents in Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes and who were subsequently paired in several other films (over a dozen in fact), playing variations on the same characters. They are two classic comedy creations and I’d love to see them turns up in new Coe novels.
Expo 58 mixes high and low humour, history and fiction, to lead us to a somewhat melancholy extended finale that just might leave you with a lump in your throat as we consider the perils of the road taken. Cow ultimately provides us with everything we will need to know about Foley and his family – it’s up to the reader to the decide if ultimately he made the right choice, or if he really had quite as much choice in the matter as he thought he had. To read more about Coe and his books, visit his blog at: www.jonathancoewriter.com/