Best of 2012: Illegal Liaisons by Grazyna Plebanek

Grazyna Plebanek is already a highly successful author in her native Poland, and Illegal Liaisons is the first of her novels to be published in English. The publisher, Stork Press, aim to give a new voice to writers from Central and Eastern Europe. I discovered them by chance earlier this year, and am so glad I did. Illegal Liaisons is an excellent example of great European literature that otherwise wouldn’t have got a chance to be known in the UK – thanks to Stork Press, Plebanek now has legions of British fans, and rightly so.

2012 paperback cover. Image: storkpress.co.uk
2012 paperback cover. Image: storkpress.co.uk

Plebanek now lives in Brussels, and the novel is set there. Her core group of characters are European immigrants that have come to Brussels to work for the EU Commission. They are the new yuppies, young and powerful, and yearning for more. The main character, however, is Jonathan, a writer; he is married to Megi, and she works for the Commission. Already he is on the sidelines, with less professional and domestic power than his wife. And so through their socialising he meets Andrea, also a partner of a Commission employee, also an immigrant (although while Jonathan and Megi are Polish, Andrea is Swedish). They quickly begin an intense and passionate affair that shakes up everything in their lives.

If I may be so bold as to quote myself (I know, I know), I wrote in my original review that Illegal Liaisons is an

intense and fascinating novel that questions the norm of family life as well the necessity of monogamy and the morality of sex…Plebanek’s writing is unembarrassed about sex and emotions, and is charged with a deep sadness as well as eroticism…thoughtful, unashamed, brave, and ultimately beautiful. (Edited quote taken from storkpress.co.uk)

I still think this now. The characters are of the first generation of Eastern Europeans that are free from Communism, and they are taking advantage of their situation to explore as much of life as they can. For Megi, this means succeeding at work – for Jonathan, it is conducting an illicit affair and pushing the boundaries of morality.

Grazyna Plebanek. Image: storkpress.co.uk
Grazyna Plebanek. Image: storkpress.co.uk

I attended the official launch of Illegal Liaisons at Belgravia Books in October, and you can read my post about it here, and also on the Belgravia Books blog. Hearing Plebanek speak about her work only further confirmed to me that this novel is one of the best of 2012.

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Illegal Liaisons was published in the UK by Stork Press in October 2012. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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Freshta by Petra Prochazkova

2012 paperback edition

I was sent a copy of Freshta from Stork Press, and to be honest, I might not have chosen to read it otherwise. Despite now knowing it’s rather good, I wasn’t instantly drawn in by the words on the back cover:

Welcome to Kabul: one family, countless secrets

When Herra falls in love with Nazir, she has no idea about the life that awaits her in post-Taliban Afghanistan, nor about the extraordinary family she is about to join. But as the cracks begin to show, Herra soon finds she will have to choose a side.

Deeply moving, provocative and funny, Freshta is a universal tale of husbands and wives, lovers and friends, a novel that will transport you into a truly extraordinary world.

That middle paragraph is a bit misleading. At the time of the novel Herra and Nazir have been married for 12 years and she is more than aware of the type of family she is now a member of; but it is only at the time of the novel that ‘the cracks begin to show‘ and things begin to change. Sides form.

Also, it’s not like life in Afghanistan is a topic that hasn’t been covered. While I’m not exactly an expert we have all seen the news reports, we all know how repressive the Taliban were and how life after they were no longer in power wasn’t instantly super duper for everyone. East/West divides and contrasts are always interesting, but with the UK and the US having been at odds with the Middle East for so long, one does wonder if there is anything new left to say (from a non-Middle East point of view) – especially by a writer from the Czech Republic as opposed to downtown Kabul.

Turns out, there is. Prochazkova’s narrator is Herra, a woman with a Russian mother and a Tajik father. Her Afghan husband Nazir is studying in her hometown of Moscow when they meet. They marry and travel around a bit before going to live with his family in Kabul. From this point on, Herra does not look back. She frequently references the fact that she is different, in so many ways, but she does not at any point express a desire to go back to Russia. At times she wonders how her family are, but she doesn’t seem to miss them. After 12 years with Nazir’s family she is completely engrained. She refers to his parents as Mother and Father and to his grandfather as Grandpa. Her family, from everyone’s point of view, no longer matters. They are irrelevant.

To me, it seems, if there is a theme in this book it is that of perspective. Herra understands that from the perspective of her Afghan family, her old life in Russia is irrelevant. Even her time there with Nazir seems like a ‘dream’, not quite real. Another world. Their relationship in Kabul also seems different from the carefree newlyweds that travelled around Russia.

There is also, crucially, our Western perspective of life in Kabul. Herra, as a Russian, almost counts as Western and so, especially since Prochazkova is Czech (closer to Russia than the UK), we are inclined to see her as ‘one of us’ living amongst ‘one of them’. This is not to do with race but with culture and religion, I must stress that. The practicalities (and impracticalities) of wearing a burka are often discussed, as well as the women’s absolute lack of power and the men’s lack of respect for them. They sit (are hidden) in a closet when guests come to the house, released only to serve food. However, the entire family clearly love each other, and Prochazkova is expert at creating scenes of familial chaos with ten things happening at once, and emotions running high.

Petra Prochazkova

With the arrival of Americans who set up a medical centre, and Herra working for them, she does consider what life could be like if she had stayed in Russia or travelled West instead of East. But mostly she pities the ignorance and piousness of the American Heidi who seems to think Afghan women are all miserable, beaten creatures who are desperate for a bikini and a bike ride. Herra grumbles to herself that it isn’t all that bad. Like the other female members of the family, she accepts that this is just what things are like. Right and wrong are not considered – they are entirely subjective concepts.

Perspective is again key: Heidi and Herra see the world in completely different ways. A very interesting scene occurs when Herra’s husband Nazir brings home a video tape (remember those?) that he insists the entire family sit down to watch. As it plays, Herra observes everyone’s reactions. They see a city on the screen, planes flying low, and then a lot of smoke and screaming as the Twin Towers collapse in New York. 9/11 has just happened. The children ask what it was all about and where it was. The adults are unperturbed – ‘the Americans bomb us all the time’ – they are not shocked. Having witnessed plenty of war and explosions and death, they are not only a little jaded but also lack sympathy for the Americans. They do not wish death on them, but they are simply not interested. They have enough to worry about with the British and American soldiers coming in to Afghanistan, and a household to deal with. And that’s it. They carry on with their day. In their world, other things matter.

There is of course the question of why the novel is called Freshta – Freshta is Herra’s sister in law, a cliche of a downtrodden woman, with an abusive, idiotic husband, too many children and not much assertiveness. She is strikingly beautiful, is never happy, and has a storyline of her own that burns slowly throughout the novel, culminating at the end. Just wait for it.

I came away from the book glad that I live the life I lead, that I am not repressed in my own home and that I have a say. I also appreciated the fact that no person – or country – knows best. Right and wrong only exist within ourselves.

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Freshta was published in October 2012 by Stork Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

I will be attending the official launch event for Freshta on 23rd November at the Free Word Centre in London. Click here for more information about the event, which is free.

Grazyna Plebanek and Maggie Gee In Conversation at Belgravia Books

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.

2012 paperback cover

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.

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.

Grazyna Plebanek

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.

Maggie Gee

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!

My signed copy of Illegal Liaisons!
And Maggie Gee signed my copy of My Animal Life!

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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.

Illegal Liaisons by Grazyna Plebanek

My apologies that I haven’t posted in a while – I’ve had a really horrendous cold that had me totally spaced out and without energy. And I’m still recovering from it! It hasn’t been very nice. ANYWAY.

Since becoming an official fan of Peirene Press, I’ve had a greater interest in translated literature, and so I was rather eager to try out the new novel from Stork Press, Illegal Liaisons by Grazyna Plebanek. Stork Press ‘[Give] Voice to New Writers from Central and Eastern Europe’, an area I know little about except from my reading about the war. It’s a bit different now.

Stork Press 2012 edition (image: goodreads.com)
Stork Press 2012 edition (image: goodreads.com)

Illegal Liaisons is a book Stork Press are very excited about, and their enthusiasm was infectious. I read the book in a couple of days and was left with plenty to think about once it was over. The press release describes it like this:

A passionate novel of unstoppable physical obsession amongst a group of Brussels eurocrats, Illegal Liaisons offers a fascinating insight into the first Polish generation that is truly ‘free’ [after Communism], but struggles to understand where the boundaries of freedom lie.

Sounds pretty good, huh? Stork Press’s Twitter feed has been testament to how much they enjoyed the novel, and not just because of the intense sex scenes. Ah yes, the sex scenes. In a way these could easily be used to sell Illegal Liaisons, and frankly they are part of its appeal (come on, who are we kidding?). But there is more to this novel than sex. It has a brain, and an agenda, and even a load of gender theory thrown in for good measure. In an interview for Stork Press’s blog which I urge you to read, author Grazyna Plebanek states that she used the story of a married man having a heated affair as a medium to explore gender roles and stereotypes, as well as identities and definitions. The result is an intense and fascinating novel that questions the norm of family life as well the necessity of monogamy and the morality of sex. Reading the interview with her really helped to put a new perspective on the novel and open it up to the reader.

While the sex (and the fantasies about sex) are graphic and very erotic, they are also very psychological. Jonathan is cheating on his wife Megi with Andrea, the partner of one of Megi’s bosses and a regular in their wider social circle. Andrea is a classic ‘other woman’. She is very attractive, and teases Jonathan with her elusiveness, always meeting him on her terms. She also flirts with every man she meets, all of whom are drawn to her and regularly form enraptured circles around her at parties. Jonathan knows she could have anyone she wants. He wonders why she has chosen him. He wonders why he chose her. He wonders when and why his relationship with Megi moved from ‘lover’ to ‘friend’.

Plebanek’s writing is unembarrassed about sex and emotions, and is charged with a deep sadness as well as eroticism. She understands that no relationship is simple, whether it be between friends, lovers, spouses, parents, children – they are all complicated in their own ways. I read about these relationships with wide eyes, trying to take it all in and understand it. After I finished the novel I sat there for a moment and tried to digest what I had just read.

Grazyna Plebanek (image: bekap.be)
Grazyna Plebanek (image: bekap.be)

Ultimately, as Plebanek states, the novel tries to show that sexuality is a part of human nature that cannot be ignored, and it is a part of everyday life – the sex scenes are not intended to shock or titillate, they are necessary to these relationships. Plebanek’s choice to write about sex from a male perspective is also very interesting. She states that she:

was curious about the man’s point of view when it comes to passion. It’s traditionally a ‘female thing’, in life, in art. We have Anna Karenina, who helplessly falls in love, but Karenin stays cool. Nowadays men are closer mentally to her than to him, I think.

The aim was to explore modern masculinity in relation to sexuality, and the changing roles of men and women. Megi is the one with the high-powered job that moves the family from Poland to Brussels, while Jonathan is the stay-at-home dad. His traditionally female role leaves him unsatisfied, and Andrea is part of his way of feeling satisfied in his life. But Megi’s role is unsatisfying as well – sporadic sections printed in italics show the reader Megi’s point of view, one that I wish could have been expanded even more. There seems to be a wealth to her character that is left untapped.

While I loved this novel, I ultimately found it quite sad. It is thoughtful, unashamed, brave, and ultimately beautiful.

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Published on 15th October 2012 by Stork Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

On 18th October I will be attending an event hosted by Stork Press at Belgravia Books, at which Grazyna Plebanek will be in conversation with author and critic Maggie Gee. The event is free, and more information can be found here.