'Erm - yes, there is your father's loss, of course, said Mr Cooke hastily, although it appeared that this was not what he'd actually been referring too. 'But we were commiserating with you, rather, on your start in life. What with one thing and another - the pub and the Belgian thing - you must have felt severely handicapped.'
Said Mr Cooke, Thomas Foley's boss at the COI, the Central Office of Information, about his parents, his father being a pub owner and his mother a Belgian refugee of the Great War. But the combination made him in the eyes of his superiors (and in the eyes of British Intelligence) perfect for keeping an eye on the activities in the Britannia, the pub of the British Pavillion at the big Expo 58 world fair, where the Belgians have put the Russian and the American Pavillions next to each other. The Cold War is breaking out, spies are everywhere, but the atmosfere at the Expo is also one of hope after the 2nd World War, and a generation of young people is looking towards the future, rather than the past. One of them was my mother, two years before I was born, working as a nurse on the Expo grounds (she still has the pin). And so this book interested me, and I have read it with the utmost pleasure.
It is, of course, a comedy. Jonathan Coe is one of Britain's great contemporary writhers, famous for his comedy novels, reminding me a bit of the great PG Wodehouse. With the Expo 58 as a background unravels an espionage novel with a twist of comedy, and with figures as Andrey, the Russian journalist/spy, Emily, American beauty/spy, Anneke, Belgian hostess, and Shirley, barmaid of the Britannia, the figures dance in the curious world of Belgium, anno 1958. And of course i should not forget Mr Wayne and Mr Radford, British spymasters, popping up at awkward moments, and curiously reminding me of the two rats in the animation movie Chicken Run.
I loved this novel. It is a nice story with some surprising twists, it gives a good background on how Expo 58 was seen by its visitors and by the people working on it, and I loved the parts where Foley heads back home, to a family life in Britain end of the 50ies, strangely droll and boring in comparison to the bubbling life on the fair. It's a comedy with a good story and it ends in an Antwerp wok restaurant that used to be the Oberbayern restaurant at the Expo.
The original Oberbayern, now a wok restaurant in Antwerp
I love how Coe brings this period to life. I love some of the characters, no heroes, just ordinary people, like you and me. Great literature ? No, but a very nice example of a British comedy novel, with a Belgian touch. Lots of joy in reading, lots of smiles, and a few tears...I think I'm going to buy the translation for my mother.