#20booksofsummer: Books 8 and 9 (Poland and Switzerland)

My timing is all messed up, but luckily I can kill two birds with one stone here. These two books within my #20booksofsummer also fit in with the Women in Translation Month. So, just imagine this is August already, as I will be out of action for most of that month.

illegalliaisonsGrażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. Danusia Stok)

This is perfect grist to the mill of anti-EU sentiment: so this is what EU bureaucrats get up to with our money! Affairs, serial affairs and gossiping, jobs with meaningless titles where nobody knows what it is they do exactly… Add to that the fact that the main character is Polish (as his wife, while his mistress is Swedish of Czech origin), and you can add a ‘those darn corrupt foreigners’ to this impression.

Of course, that is not at all what the Polish author intended in this, her fourth novel (and her first to be translated into English). It was first published in 2010 and translated in 2012, but it appears to have caused very few ripples so far, despite its potentially explosive subject matter.

Jonathan decides to become a stay-at-home Dad and pursue his writing ambitions when his wife Megi gets a well-paid position as a lawyer at the European Commission. However, although he enjoys the advantages of expat life, he mocks the self-important and meaningless eurocrats. Bored and perhaps feeling slightly disenfranchised, he embarks upon a torrid affair with the voluptuous journalist Andrea, wife of his wife’s boss.

The sex scenes are frank, as is the description of a man’s growing obsession with the ‘wrong kind of woman’, and the author is frighteningly good at putting herself into a man’s shoes. Of course, the whole concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ kind of woman is debatable. Although his wife Megi seems to be exceedingly reasonable and charming, and although he is periodically wracked by guilt, Jonathan just cannot stay away from Andrea.

I enjoyed some of the cross-cultural observations, but overall the book seemed repetitive and confused to me. Perhaps that was the intention: giving us a bit of insight into the male psyche. Compared with the affair described in Isabel Costello’s book Paris Mon Amour (in many ways the mirror image of this, but described from a woman’s point of view), this felt much messier and pointless.

GILLIARD_1E_COUVValerie Gilliard: Le Canal (The Canal) – sadly, not yet translated

This slim volume proves the point that sometimes the simplest of stories can be extremely effective, if well told.

It’s a Friday in October in the small Swiss spa town of Yverdon. The weather is nice once more after a bout of rain, and people are out and about by the side of the canals which feed into the Lake of Neuchatel. An idyllic, peaceful moment, so easy to imagine. Then a little girl starts running after a dog by the side of the canal. Her mother is momentarily distracted by a phone call and the girl falls in. These facts are described quite dryly in the Prologue, and then we see the event (as well as what led up to it and what happened afterwards) from the point of view of several of the witnesses: the mother, Almina; the old fisherman who jumps in to rescue the girl; Steve, a young graduate with right-wing tendencies; Berivan, a Kurdish woman holding a baby; and an old lady who saw everything from her window and called the ambulance.

Yes, it has been done before, most famously in the ‘Rashomon’ film based on the Akutagawa story. But what I liked here is what the different points of view reveal about Swiss society today. Both Almina and Berivan are ‘foreigners’, refugees who fled to this country as children. Although they grew up in that very town, they are still regarded with suspicion. The press is quick to condemn the mother’s carelessness and doubts are soon cast upon her parenting abilities. In the end, it’s the older generation, the fisherman and the old woman with her own tragic past, who are able to reach out a helping hand. And the ending is just beautiful, without being cloyingly sentimental.

One of the canals in Yverdon, from mapio.net


18 thoughts on “#20booksofsummer: Books 8 and 9 (Poland and Switzerland)”

  1. I’m not enticed by more sex and nay-saying about the EU – we got enough of that from Boris Johnson and the Brit tabloids. But the Yverdon setting, yes definitely – and I’ll report back in autumn 🙂

    1. I’m always a little torn when I see such topics, as it’s always easy to mock international organisations and their huge bureaucracy (one of the best books in the genre is Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses). But on the other hand, there is a greater variety and complexity among those people than we give them credit for (and I know many of those people).

  2. Fingers crossed Le Canal gets translated as it sounds excellent. Could be a good one for a discussion group too. I wonder if it might be of interest to Peirene Press? It’s a slim book, so it could fit their model.

    1. Yes, that would be an option. Also, a friend of mine is considering setting up a publishing house in Switzerland (subject to obtaining some funding), where they would translate a certain proportion of Swiss books into English, but also open it up to other countries, so we can live in hope. I’ve already sent her a couple of suggestions, including this one and the Ungrateful Stranger one I reviewed a while ago.

  3. Marina, the problem with reading your book reviews is my TBR list is staggering already. Now it is on your head as I add Le Canal…

      1. Well, it depends on the types of books and what the writer has to say… I’ve got one I can’t wait to begin reading (tonight!) written by another blogger. While I only scanned the review (that is usually sufficient) I have a feeling about this book…

  4. Ah, EU intrigue… I can see how that would make for excellent grist for the crime fiction mill, Marina Sofia. It’s a complex topic, and right now, a real flashpoint, so that must’ve been difficult to read.

  5. Great review. Illegal Liasons sounds like a good read. Later when I read your review of Le Canal I found it fascinating. I think it is a great theme to explore in a book. I am sure there are lot of emotions involved in portraying the mother and child and those who extended help etc.

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