When I met Magda Raczyńska, head of literature at the Polish Cultural Institute, through an English PEN course I attended a few months ago, I knew she would be the person to help me pick this book. In fact, Magda did much more than recommend one book, posting a whole host of fascinating-sounding suggestions on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page. Delighted, I added them to the list.
But this left me with another dilemma: how on earth was I going to choose just one book from this torrent of tempting titles? Realising that I was a bit overwhelmed, Magda stepped in again. She would give me her top two choices: if I was looking for a pageturner, she recommended the forthcoming translation of Grażyna Plebanek’s Illegal Liaisons. If I was after a challenging read, Dorota Masłowska’s Snow White and Russian Red would be her number-one pick.
While I was agonising between the two, I got an email from Joanna at Stork Press. She wanted to let me know about a Polish book they were publishing in October, Illegal Liaisons by Grażyna Plebanek. Would I be interested in seeing an advance copy? I decided to let serendipity make the decision for me. Illegal Liaisons it would be.
Set in Brussels in the late 2000s, the novel follows Polish father and fairy-tale writer Jonathan as he tries to juggle family life and an extramarital affair. Overshadowed by his wife Megi’s impressive career at the EU, he finds a new sense of purpose in the arms of her colleague Simon’s girlfriend, Andrea. But as the risk of discovery and the expectations of their respective partners, friends, colleagues and relatives exert ever greater pressure on the covert relationship, Jonathan finds himself forced to examine the decisions that have led him to this point in life and, ultimately, to choose what sort of man he wants to be.
Plebanek is exceptionally good at depicting the dynamics of relationships. Whether she is describing the ‘crop rotation of work-family’ or the subtle power play that leaves Jonathan agonising over Andrea’s texts in the small hours, the author captures the minute shifts in the way we relate to one another that force us to renegotiate our place in the world every day, if not every hour. Much of the interaction described in the novel is so natural and well-observed that reading the book often feels more like eavesdropping on a private conversation than consuming a published work.
As a consequence, the sex scenes – which I as a British reader, raised on the mixture of vague, apologetic descriptions and dutiful blow-by-blow accounts that characterises much UK writing about physical intimacy, generally regard with dread and impatience – feel effortless. There is also a nice extra dimension in the exploration of the way an artist’s emotional life spills into his creations, as reflected by the wilful characters in the story Jonathan struggles to write over the course of the book and the work of the students on his creative writing course.
The depiction of the international community in Brussels is interesting too. In this no man’s land where mothers of all nationalities jostle Jonathan at the school gates and job titles involve intangible, nebulous things like leasing, auditing, PR and human resources, it is hard to foster a sense of identity and belonging. As a result, Megi and Jonathan frequently find themselves running up against their Western European counterparts’ clichéd perceptions of Poles. Plebanek writes well about this and about the legacy of ‘communist schizophrenia, where one thing was said at school and another at home’ that still at times dominates Megi and Jonathan’s thinking.
However, such fine observations can only carry the book so far. Although Plebanek is careful to raise the stakes over the course of the narrative, the plot does feel a little static in the latter half of the book. As Megi, Jonathan, Simon and Andrea rotate around the same narrow spiral of dinner parties and drinks receptions, it’s tempting to wonder whether a few scenes might have been amalgamated in the interests of keeping the momentum up. In addition, the title, which seems to promise a romp through the criminal underworld rather than an extramarital affair (not illegal in Europe), is problematic.
However this does not detract from the fact that the book is, by and large, a very good read. As a chronicler of domestic dynamics, Plebanek is up there with the best of them. This, the first of her novels to be translated into English, deserves to do well.
Illegal Liaisons (Nielegalne związki) by Grażyna Plebanek, translated from the Polish by Danusia Stok (Stork Press, 2012)