Illegal Liaisons by Grazyna Plebanek

13th Dec 2012

grazyna_plebanek_illegal liaisons
One of Poland’s best-selling authors, Grażyna Plebanek will have been unknown to Anglophone readers until the release of Illegal Liaisons. This is her fourth novel, but the first to be translated into English (by Danusia Stok).

It’s a welcome introduction, courtesy of the wonderful Stork Press: Illegal Liaisons shows Plebanek to be a writer of courage and intelligence, exceptionally well-positioned to examine a new European order, and a world where international manoeuvrings translate into personal intrigues.

Illegal Liaisons is also Plebanek’s first novel to be told from a male perspective. It is – as the title makes clear – a tale of infidelity.

Jonathan, Megi and their two children have just moved from their native Poland to Brussels (where Plebanek herself is now based) for the sake of Megi’s career.

A high-flying lawyer, Megi is making the move into the European Commission, and its bureaucratic world of power-play, hierarchies and shifting alliances. Jonathan, a journalist and author, finds himself in the role of house-husband, caring for the family while Megi works long hours.

It is while trying and failing to fit into to this new life that he begins an all-consuming affair with Andrea, the journalist partner of one of the Commission’s most important members.

Andrea is a powerful, disturbing character, a sexual force to be reckoned with – and Plebanek’s sex scenes are uncompromising in their depiction of the erotic power that she has over Jonathan.

Yet the reader is never privileged with her point of view, leaving her as unfathomable to us as she so often is to Jonathan. She is fiercely independent to the point of what looks like emotional coldness – and yet the same behaviour in a man would, perhaps, be judged very differently.

a fascinating look at the generation that are living the reality of Poland’s new role at the heart of EuropeThis is an adulterous text in more ways than one – the language of the text is adulterated with a cacophony of other languages, national identities and allegiances are blurred, and roles are confused  – mother, father, lover, spouse, partner, colleague… Nor, in this battle between convention, conscious and freedom, are there any trite or easy answers.

Making other people’s obsessions as interesting to others as they are to themselves is always tricky, and Illegal Liaisons could have done with more judicious editing – it’s over-long, and the intricate ebbs and flows of Andrea and Jonathan’s relationship aren’t quite compelling or insightful enough to quite warrant every one of its pages.

That said, this book remains a fascinating look at the generation that are living the reality of Poland’s new role at the heart of Europe. It is also a brave examination of changing gender roles, and suggests that the old order is, at least among the ex-pat elite, very much on the way out. Jonathan is a house-husband, and his greatest happiness comes from his children, while the female characters reject feminine conventions.

Despite the fact that many of the male characters – Jonathan’s best friend Stefan in particular  – continue to objectify women from afar, Plebanek’s women refuse to become objects. Rather, they outsmart the men with a staunch commitment to their own ambitions, personal and professional.

Whether or not this brave new world is an improvement on the old is left up to us to decide. Illegal Liaisons is out now in paperback.