Thursday, 14 November 2013

Jonathan Coe - Expo 58

A few weeks ago Jonathan Coe published Expo 58, his tenth novel. The context of a delightful story is the world exhibition in Brussels in 1958, 'the first such event since the end of the Second World War'. Coe wonderfully positions the exhibition and the Atomium, an enormous metal structure, at the heart of the story, the symbol of the paradox of the 1950s when European nations were moving closer towards peaceful cooperation and political tensions between NATO and Soviet bloc countries.

"Built on an enormous site in Brussels, Expo 58 was three years in the making and was open to the public for six months. Members of countries from all over the world, from Mexico to Austria, the USA to the USSR, congregated at this commercial and cultural extravaganza, whose mood reflected a possibly naive but heartfelt wish that the future would be rosier than the recent past." (The Herald)

"The World's Fair of 1958, however, gives Coe the jump on the tricky subject of Britishness. The cold war is arctic. Europe is once again a battleground. As the capital of the European project, Brussels is in the frontline of the struggle for the soul of the west, and Belgium, as every schoolboy knows, is the pistol pointed at the heart of England. There's plenty at stake."  (The Guardian)

The Atomium was designed by Andre Waterkeyn, a Belgian engineer and director of Fabrimetal, who was born in Kingston in 1917. Several sources mention Wimbledon, but refers to Kingston. A sister of his was born in Kingston one year earlier. The Waterkeyn family did not reutnr to Belgium immediately and Waterkeyn was nearly four when they returned. In 1948, Andre participated in the London Olympics as a member of the Belgian hockey team. He died in Brussels in 2005.

A passage in Expo 58 "which Thomas reflects on his months in Brussels suggests that the World's Fair setting, with its fantastical representations of the real world, is intended to function like the ceremonial spaces you find in that largely abandoned tradition of comedy where reality is suspended and dreamlike transformations occur (Shakespeare's forests are the classic example, though Woody Allen's idealised European capitals might be a better fit). " (The Guardian)

In Expo 58, the main character's mother was a Belgian refugee from Leuven, who had fled as the Germans attacked the University city. The refugee aspect, notably marginal in the book, is hardly picked up on by the many reviews. And yet, it is the relation with a past the main character's mother never had in Belgium because she had fled to Britain, that is the backdrop for the romance on the one hand and several chapters in the book, not least of which 'Welkom Terug', indeed a Dutch title in an English novel. And all because of a Belgian refugee in Britain.

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