Idiots abroad: What Happens in Brussels stays in Brussels

What happens in Brussels stays in Brussels

This review was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

First sentences. So important in any book. They can turn you off completely, make your eyes skim uninterestedly over the words and your hands chuck it back to its shelf.
Or they can reel you in, like William Gibson’s legendary “The sky over the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel” in Neuromancer. Or Paul Auster’s ““I was 12 years old the first time I walked on water”, in Mr Vertigo.

Ġuże Stagno’s new offering comes with a first sentence that might not contain the depth of Auster, or the cyber-weirdness of Gibson, but boy does it make you splutter into your coffee and laugh out loud. And, more importantly, it makes you eager to devour the rest of the book, in the knowledge that more gems of the sort are bound to follow.
I will leave you to discover the precise nature of this introduction when you read the book, not least because this is a family newspaper and Stagno’s rumanz pop comes with what we diplomatically refer to as strong language.
And it has to, not because it is based in gratuitous sensationalism, but because the anecdotes in What Happens in Brussels, Stays in Brussels are nothing but a slice of real life. And like it or not, most Maltese adults use a vernacular that is heavily peppered with x-rated colloquialisms.

This is real life as viewed from the sardonic viewpoint of Stagno, of course. The storyline revolves around Gustav, a journalist on a press junket to Brussels, organised by MEP Charlo Pulis. Gustav is there to interview the MEP, while the others are there because all Maltese politicians know that the best way to keep their canvassers happy is by piling on the free stuff at the taxpayer’s expense.

As soon as the group gets to Brussels, things start going haywire in the best tradition of Three Men on a Boat – only in a much more chavtastic manner, of course, the way only Stagno can pull off. The story works because we have all met the people he writes about – they are stereotypes in the best way possible, because we recognise in them a neighbour, a colleague, a fellow bus commuter…

Like Stagno himself says in the book, stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. No matter how much we love this island and the quirks that make us Maltese, we’ve all been there, that cringeworthy moment when a fellow countryman ups the chav ante so badly that you would rather pretend to be anything but Maltese.

Stagno’s story is very topical (it takes place a few months before the last election), which adds to the attraction. He also has an intriguing way of bringing together fact and fiction. He insists that Pulis is not based on anyone real, for instance, though we all have our suspicions. At the same time, he introduces to the story real life people like Louis Grech and Silvio Parnis – accompanied by rather clever observations on said gentlemen. He even manages to work in a reference to Clinton Paul (respect!). Geeks of a certain mind frame, on the other hand, will appreciate the references to particular musicians like Morrissey and Gainsbourg, as well as to real life film lecturer Dr Saviour Catania.

A big part of the attraction of Stagno’s style is the way his narrative rolls forward in a most easy-going manner. Rather than reading, it’s almost like you are eavesdropping on a conversation. His spot-on use of the vernacular contributes a lot to this. Stagno’s Maltese (because despite the title, the book is actually written in Maltese) is the Maltese we hear in the streets; the Maltese that is peppered with English phrases, and a couple of Italian ones too here and there.

But perhaps more importantly, what you will take from What Happens in Brussels (besides the somewhat disturbing feeling of a continuous deja-vu) is a new wrinkle or two cause by the multiple giggles. Because yes, this book will have you LOLing (the internet acronym somehow seems totally appropriate in this case) like a lunatic wherever you happen to be reading it. I kept getting raised eyebrows from people in cafes while I was doing exactly that.
I can’t bring this review to an end without calling Stagno out on the way he does a Kurt Vonnegut and a Douglas Coupland, referencing himself in his own book. Tut, tuts all along – but at the end of the day, we forgive him the vanity since there is one highly addictive book to back it up.