I was lucky enough to receive an advance proof of Grazyna Plebanek’s first novel to be translated into English, Illegal Liaisons, from publisher Stork Press. Stork Press are based in London and publish English editions of work by writers from Central and Eastern Europe: Plebanek is from Poland, and lives in Brussels, and has been very successful in Europe. Now, Stork Press have brought her latest work to the UK. Hopefully more of her work, including her back catalogue, will be translated into English.
I reviewed Illegal Liaisons a couple of weeks ago to a great response from the publisher and author, as well as my readers. Stork Press liked it so much they sent me a gorgeous final copy as soon as they came in, and another of their novels, Freshta by Czech author Petra Prochazkova, which I have just finished reading and will review very soon. Extremely flattered and having really loved Illegal Liaisons, and with lots more I wanted to ask and to know, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to this great little event at independent bookshop Belgravia Books.
It is always interesting, whether good or bad, to meet the author of a book you like and to hear them talk about their work. I was fascinated not only by Plebanek’s work but also by the interview she did for the Stork Press blog, in which she talked about her motivations and process for writing Illegal Liaisons, and her thoughts on sexuality, passion, love, and gender. Luckily Maggie Gee asked wonderfully simple but insightful questions, prompting Plebanek to speak frankly about her inspiration and process. She cited Anais Nin as an influence and inspiration when writing about sexuality and relationships between men and women; and sitting with a male friend watching women walk past and asking him to comment on them in order for her to gain some insight into how men see women sexually. There is a lot of sex in this novel, and Plebanek’s narrator is male, so it is not surprising she had to do a little research to form his viewpoint.
No one in this novel is faithful. All relationships seem to be duplicitous and no one seems satisfied with what they have, no matter how great it is. I wondered if there is any belief in love and togetherness in this novel, any hope for a faithful relationship. When asked about the possibility of faithful love, both Plebanek and Gee agreed that the only faithful love in Illegal Liaisons is between parents and children – that is the only relationship that brings any of the characters any real happiness or sense of satisfaction.
With everyone being so unfaithful, there is the question of morality. Gee asked Plebanek if she was a moralist, and this lead me to be brave enough to raise my hand and ask if it was intentional that there is no real judgment from the narrator about the behaviour of the characters. Plebanek answered that yes, this was intentional – none of the characters are better or worse than each other, no gender is better or worse. We are all flawed and dishonest sometimes, and we all have the capacity to lie and betray. That said, there is hope for love in this novel, in whatever form it may take.
I was glad that although there was plenty of discussion about sex and relationships, Gee and Plebanek also discussed the politics of the novel. The central group are foreigners living in Brussels, and most of them, like Jonathan’s wife Megi, work for the European Commission, which Gee stated hangs over the group and indeed Brussels like an oppressive force and the only way to progress is to work for it. Jonathan does not. He writes, and looks after the children, and conducts his affair with Andrea, who also does not work for the Commission. They are rebelling, breaking the accepted rules of lifestyle – what they are doing is ‘illegal’ not in the literal sense but in the sense that it is taboo (even though everyone else is screwing around) and not the same as everyone else (they all work for the Commission). Gee stated it was an interesting choice of title for a novel set in the political and strictly law-abiding city of Brussels. It is practically satirical.
Some literary events are better than others. The bad ones are a bit quiet and awkward, and only people who already know each other talk. On this occasion, this was not the case. In the small but pleasant space of Belgravia Books, everyone sipped their free wine (thank you Polish Cultural Institute!) and talked freely. I was lucky enough to talk to Maggie Gee (I even bought her memoir, My Animal Life), and Grazyna Plebanek, and they both remembered my review and signed my books for me. A very interesting and successful evening in a lovely venue. Read this book!
Illegal Liaisons was published on 15th October 2012 by Stork Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.
My Animal Life was published in July 2011 by Telegram Books.
You can see pictures from this event on Stork Press’s Facebook page here.