How I must have annoyed my fellow travellers on the train as I chuckled away and occasionally laughed out loud, reading Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe. Published last year, it’s an enjoyably comic novel set at the Expo 58 exhibition in Brussels in 1958. It contains spies, the British Civil Service, love interests, and twists in the tail. An author’s note at the end shows to what lengths he went to get verisimilitude, even in a committee meeting that I had assumed was just invented farce.
Our hero is Thomas Foley, who holds a junior position in the Central Office of Information. His mother was a Belgian refugee and he grew up in a pub, so he is thought to be the ideal person to go on the COI’s behalf to ‘keep an eye on’ the replica Britannia pub, part of the British exhibition there. His duties at the Britannia are vague (indeed we never get to learn what they are), but he is taken aside by two mysterious men from the British Secret Service, Tweedledum and Tweedledee-type characters called Radford and Wayne, and told also to keep an eye on what Eastern bloc folk might be getting up to at the Fair.
Among others we meet a beautiful Belgian guide/hostess, Anneke, for whom our hero develops a soft spot; her plainer friend Clara; Thomas’ roommate Tony Buttress (who is involved with the cutting-edge scientific Zeta Project); the Russian ‘editor’ Andrey Chersky, who befriends Thomas and is unusually interested in the Zeta Project; Emily from Wisconsin, who demonstrates vacuum cleaners in the American pavilion and who is keen on Andrey Chersky; the bulky British spy Wilkins; the alcoholic Mr Rossiter, the manager of the Britannia, who resents Thomas’ presence; and his able barmaid Shirley Knott (indeed!), who pals up with an American, Mr Longman. We learn through some brilliant letters between Thomas and his wife Sylvia that back at home she resents his absence and is getting too close to the obnoxious next-door neighbour, Mr Sparks.
Events get rather complicated. There is farce, and wryer (presumably ‘wry’ has a comparative form?) humour such as the brilliant Civil Service committee meeting near the start of the book. There are some great set-pieces such as an evening in a German bierkeller; a romantic meal for Thomas and Anneke in Expo’s best restaurant, the Praha in the Czechoslovak pavilion (which did indeed have that reputation, and was reassembled back in Prague after Expo); and a picnic in the Belgian countryside. There are sensitive passages too – such as Thomas’ reactions to a concert – and a poignant epilogue.
It is notoriously difficult to recommend humorous books to others – what makes me LOL may raise barely a titter from you. But Expo 58 worked for me. Now I’m reading a cracking Ian Rankin, so my fellow-commuters can snooze undisturbed.