Desperate Househusband
autor: Robert Ostaszewski

In the difficult and arduous profession of a writer there are projects which are quite impossible to tackle in an original or even satisfactory way. One of them is writing about love and male-female affairs. Just remember the famous phrase from the afterword to the "Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco. It seems love was, is and will be written about, but rarely anything meaningful comes out of that. Especially in Poland ...

Recently, our literature has been dominated by a pattern of romance derived from what is called female prose (I do not like that term, but what can I do), based on the story of Bridget Jones. There are lots of quite fantastic stories, which ignore the reality of modern Poland, about roughly middle-aged women who do not have substantial material worries and focus their attention on finding the one and only. Even when he is not worth the effort. Grazyna Plebanek ignored this tradition. Well done.

To say that "Illegal Liaisons" is a novel about love, is to say nothing (or almost nothing). Without the risk of over interpretation, one could read this novel as a story, for example, of the ups and downs of Poles looking for jobs and careers abroad. After all, the main characters of Plebanek's novel -- the marriage of Jonathan and Megi (don't be confused by the foreign-sounding names, they are our compatriots) -- go to Brussels in pursuit of professional careers. That is to say Megi, who works for the EU administration, much more than her husband (I will return to this theme yet).
Apart from them, there are also secondary characters in the novel, who decidedly prefer to work for euros than for zlotys. It is worth underlining that the author of "Girls from Portofino" approached the subject of economic migration in recent years differently than most other novelists who tackled the issue.

The heroes of "Illegal Liaisons" are neither uneducated losers, nor graduates of uninteresting faculties at secondary universities dreaming of a dishwashing job in Britain, who are so keenly portrayed in our prose. To the contrary - these are highly educated people, fluent in several foreign languages, who slowly but steadily advance in the so-called West.
Of course, their career paths are not easy and their successes are often paid for by their failures in family life. But this does not change the fact that Plebanek shows a different type of emigrant-hero then her predecessors - A Pole-European, who competes without an inferiority complex with other Europeans and often wins and who feels equally at home in Warsaw as in other European capitals.
Yes, it's an interesting topic, but I think the romance in "Illegal Liaisons" is far more compelling, so that's what I will focus on.
It is clear Plebanek showed a lot of courage designing the story in her latest novel the way she did. The bottom line is that cheating on your spouse strengthens and develops you. Of course one could see the last sentence as a cheap rhetorical trick, or a slight exaggeration of interpretation, but not quite.

But -- one thing at a time.
There are overlapping "menages a troi" in the story of which Megi and Jonathan are the common part. Plebanek throws the reader right in the middle of an affair: Jonathan meets his mistress, Andrea, in a church and then comes back to his family and its ordinary problems as if nothing had happened. Such an opening, additionally strengthened by the title of the book, promises
a juicy story of an illicit relationship of a married man who is going through a lightweight life crisis, with a young and attractive woman.
And indeed, the text is somewhat spicy in the descriptions of sex and how sex intoxicates the heroes and the perverse character of the menage a trois, given that Andrea is the life partner of the highly influential boss of Megi.
It is quickly clear however, that Plebanek discards or even breaks the simple pattern of the unfaithful husband who blindly chases a skirt. How? Is it that Jonathan is also cheated on by his wife (because he is)? That too, but in this case it is more the way Plebanek has created her main characters. Let me explain.


There are at least two original and captivating tricks in Plebanek's novel which give her tale of romance more weight and surprising meanings. One of them is the rewriting - in a feminist spirit - of typical social roles, culturally ascribed to women and men, which largely controls the action. (Although I need to note that in "Illegal Liaisons" we have a "light" version of feminism, without the defiance and orthodoxy of the texts of writers defining themselves as feminist.)

In the marriage of the main characters, Jonathan is a househusband. While Megi develops her career, often working overtime and earning a lot of money, her husband takes care of the house and their two children. Moreover, Jonathan, once a decent journalist and author of popular children's books, in fact gives up his professional ambitions so that his wife can pursue hers, because his low-paid job as a teacher of creative writing can hardly be considered satisfactory. What's more, the hero has a peculiar sensibility for a man. Rather than a macho, who seeks to affirm his value by conquering new women, he is closer to a sensitive, emotionally responsive woman.

All this makes the main theme of the novel, the romance of Andrea and Jonathan, develop in an interesting and unexpected way. At the beginning of their secret affair, the hero still acts like a typical man, who, a bit bored with the routine of marriage, tries to raise his adrenaline level through the conquest of a new woman and gets carried away by his sexual fascination. But his lover is a peculiar woman. Andrea is very independent, self sufficient and collected and rarely gives in to emotions outside the bed. In fact, in the relationship with Jonathan she is the more masculine person (keeping in mind, of course, that I am still referring to stereotypically understood roles of men and women).
The hero quickly succumbs to his mistress, who deals the cards in their relationship, adopting the role of the one who yearns, who keeps sending text messages and who waits impatiently for the next meeting, or even a sign of interest. He calls her "the fleeing woman," although Andrea actually seems to behave like a man who takes a woman for one or several nights, and then begins to avoid her.
Initially Jonathan is surprised at this, but eventually concludes that he "has the right to feelings, sensations, instincts and impulses - even though he is a man" (p. 321) and begins to accept the role assigned to him. The relationship between the lovers is further complicated by the exceptionally strong bond that Jonathan has with his children. Although in the early stages of his infatuation with Andrea he sometimes neglects his parental duties, he later tries to make sure that his "illegal liaison" does not affect his children. In the end, it is the existence of his children that stops Jonathan from leaving the family for his mistress, which is well depicted in a metaphorical way in the scene of picking up the kids from a nursery: "Jonathan pulls his [children] by the hands to the car, they are next to him - two hands, two children - there are no more hands"(p. 266).


In stories, cheating is usually regarded as evil. The appearance of "the other" destroys the order - even if tenuous or highly fragile anyway - of family or partner relationships. To some extent the same happens in "Illegal Liaisons", when Jonathan, torn by doubts and increasingly indifferent to Megi, decides in a desperate step to move to Andrea. But Plebanek also points to the benefits of betrayal. The affairs of both Jonathan and Megi (even though hers was definitely less intense and stormy) have a - so to speak - transgressive dimension, they allow the heroes overcome the limitations of their own physicality and sexuality, to open to new experiences, and in the end - see themselves in the eyes of their partners to see themselves differently. They therefore constitute a kind of self-discovery path, allow them - though in a way painful and difficult way - to realise own desires and to reformulate, or even improve, their value system and set new priorities in life. Betrayal is so in this case paradoxical creation through destruction. Of course, I am not saying that Plebanek encourages cheating, but the positive aspects of betrayal are clearly noted in the novel.

Frankly, when I read on the cover of Plebanek's novel that it is a story - in short - of love and betrayal, I was not expecting too much. But I was in for a surprise -- it turned out the author gave me a lot of reading fun, which confirms that if one wants to, has a bit of courage and a handful of original ideas, it can be done. Let's hope other writers try as hard as Plebanek does.


Translated by Jan Strupczewski

photo by Stephan Vanfleteren