The British writer Jonathan Coe found inspiration for his latest novel, Expo 58, during a visit to Brussels. He was invited by the Belgian radio journalist Ann Rootveld to do an interview at the Atomium on the Heysel plateau.
"Like many British people I was entirely unaware of the existence of this monument", he confessed in an author’s note at the end of the book. Coe was immediately smitten by this "staggering creation: epic in scale, brilliant in execution, at once touching, optimistic, absurd and surreal."
Funded by the Flemish government under its generous Residences in Flanders scheme, Coe bedded down in the Villa Hellebosch in Vollezele to create a novel inspired by Expo 58. It tells the story of a reticent British civil servant from the London suburb of Tooting who is sent to Brussels to run a replica English pub. The bumbling Thomas Foley is seen as the perfect candidate as his father once ran a pub while his mother was a Belgian refugee who fled from the German army in 1914.
Foley finds himself plunged into the brave new world of Brussels in 1958 where Russia and America are spying on one another and the German beer hall brings everyone together in a fog of gemütlichkeit. He meets Anneke, a Flemish hostess at the Fair, and sets off to visit the village of Wijgmaal where his mother once lived.
Ealing comedy or Cold War thriller?
The novel is a strange mixture of styles - part 1950s Ealing comedy, part Cold War thriller. Coe is particularly good at evoking the unreal atmosphere of the Expo 58 site with its temporary buildings and fleeting affairs. He based the book on some serious research in the Belgian National Library leafing through old copies of a Soviet magazine published at the time, as well as interviewing a former Expo hostess and tracking down the former Bavarian beer hall (now a Chinese restaurant on the N1 highway near Antwerp).
Image of Belgium
British writers normally adopt a sneering tone on those rare occasions when they write about Belgium. Coe has done something more subtle. He has written an affectionate novel in which Brussels comes out as glamorous and sexy, while London seems dowdy and comic. By immersing himself in the optimistic ideals that created one of the world’s most extraordinary buildings, he has done wonders for the image of Belgium. That Flemish government grant was clearly well spent.