Illegal Liaisons, by Grazyna Plebanek
autor: by Richard W. Jackson
źródło: Book Hugger

Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, is not a city one commonly associates with romantic tales, steamy love triangles, or indeed - when one thinks carefully - literature as a whole. Ask yourself: name a book in which the Belgian city predominately features? I came up with one, but later accepted that the Rough Guide to Belgium is cheating. Yet despite this, leaving ignorance to one side, I had to ask why this was? Being the seat of a large political arena, attracting young and old from Brussels' Zenne River to Warsaw's Vistula, surely this microcosm of European society is the perfect place to set a modern novel? However, even with this question in mind, it wasn't until after I read Illegal Liaisons - from Polish author Grażyna Plebanek - that I truly realised how tantalising a world Brussels can be.

In Plebanek's native Poland, much has been written about the 'erotica' found within Illegal Liaisons, the author's first novel to receive an English translation. Published by Stork Press, a number of Polish critics described how the book broke down barriers with its explicit depictions of sex and heated illicit trysts. Unsurprising, considering Illegal Liaisons opens with a 'communion of bodies' in a Brussels church, where Jonathan - the novel's torn yet genial protagonist - meets Andrea, the woman with whom he has started a passionate extramarital affair. Whilst in secular Brussels, meeting for such a liaison may be easily forgiven, we should certainly not begrudge matka Polka her startled "gasp":

'So, how are you? asked Andrea, standing in the door, barefoot and wrapped in nothing but a towel.
He was going to lay it all out for her, throw it in her face, but all he managed to do was cross the threshold. And when she placed her hand - her peasant's hand, so different from the rest of her subtle self - on his arm, he caught her by the waist, carried her into the room and threw her on the sofa. She unfastened his flies and helped him lower his trousers....

Though the sensual scenes between the unfaithful couple are thrilling and explicit, offering some of the most pleasurable moments in the novel, Illegal Liaisons is much more than a story of sex amongst today's Euro-elites. Moving beyond passion, the novel is in fact a smart study of identity in the 'new Europe', examining the rapidly evolving topography of modern society, be it the deconstruction of traditional gender roles, the changing nature of personal relationships, or the role of national consciousness in an increasingly Diasporic continent.

Jonathan and his wife Megi are Polish expats living and working in Brussels. Leaving Poland for Megi's career, their life in Belgium is dominated by the claustrophobic environment of Euro-agency work, ambitious co-workers, sterile dinner parties, Polish stereotyping, and juggling familial life with inter-personal relationships. Written from Jonathan's perspective - Plebanek uses the novel to explore passion from a male point of view, as well as to examine the face of modern masculinity - we join him as a devoted house-husband, caring from his two children (Antonia and Tomaszek), whilst Megi applies herself to a flourishing career at the EU Commission. A good husband and father, Jonathan increasingly disenchanted with his Brussels lifestyle (complete with daily school-gate conversations with an assortment of international mothers), leading him to find work as a writing instructor (he is a published author of fairy-tales) and, ultimately, to noticing the sultry Czecho-Swedish girlfriend of one of his wife's colleagues (Simon: a pompous, upper class Englishman).

Being the only two developed, non-EU employed characters, there is a feeling of inevitability that Jonathan and Andrea (a journalist) will find solace with one another, away from the world of Eurocrats and spiteful career politics. But it is not idyllic. As with most tales of extra-martial affairs, a good portion of the book is devoted to the clandestine nature of the relationship; both worry about being exposed, Jonathan fretting in particular about his marriage and - most importantly - how it may affect his children. He is right to be cautious: early in the novel, Megi - a smart and thoughtful woman - soon has her suspicion piqued at a party, before joining Jonathan in questioning the nature of their relationship and life in Brussels. Never explosive or melodramatic, the narrative is instead guided by the measured introspective analysis of Jonathan, as he attempts to take hold of his emotions and lust for Andrea. It is here that Plebanek succeeds most, for she presents Jonathan as an impassioned, sensitive man, without feminising him or succumbing to 'limp-wristed' stereotyping.

Away from the sexual dalliances and heartbreak, Plebanek - ever the journalist - is at work again, layering the novel further, with a discussion of Megi and Jonathan's place as emigrant Poles in Western Europe. Expatriates the world over will relate to the feeling of isolation and struggle to belong that can sometimes take hold after leaving one's own culture behind - and our central married couple are not immune. With Megi in particular, whose thoughts and fears are revealed fragmentally throughout, we encounter a Polish expat of the first post-Communist generation, coming to terms with her identity as a 'free' Pole in Europe. She's unhindered by the old-regime, existing nationalist sentiment, and devotion to the dominant Catholic culture that once characterised Poland. Yet, she is also concerned about being stripped entirely of her 'Polishness':

Megi listens to the sounds of Warsaw - the screech of trams, ambulance sirens, the rattle of garbage trucks. Her city. And yet, when her cousins had asked her whether she missed the place, she'd nodded - because she did but it was Brussels she missed. Her local patriotism is muddled: she can't stand visitors speaking badly of Warsaw, she defends it, then leaves and doesn't think about it, head over heels in love with Brussels.

A study of a successful, young, Polish couple's life outside of Poland, living in the heartland of the European Union, is (I imagine) unique among translated fiction currently available. Illegal Liaisons, therefore, is a perfect choice from Stork Press, fitting the publisher's ambition to release Central and Eastern European fiction that may have been wrongly overlooked in the past. As Jonathan and Andrea's affair heats up and begins to impose upon their inner-circle of friends, family, and colleagues, the psychological effects of an affair are analysed without assigning judgement or vilification against the 'unfaithful'. This releases Illegal Liaisons from any unnecessary moralising that can often blight this type of story, making the novel a worthwhile and mature read, which recounts the lives of ordinary - flawed - people, that will be identifiable to all readers. Hopefully, we will soon see more from Grażyna Plebanek, who joins the likes of Olga Tokarczuk, Andrzej Stasiuk, Natasza Goerke, and Paweł Huelle, as contemporary Polish authors that have found an increasing UK audience.


photo by Stephan Vanfleteren