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The Breaking Of Eggs - Jim Powell

The Breaking Of Eggs

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Set in 1991, our narrator Feliks Zhukovski, a displaced Polish Communist living in Paris, lies in his sick bed being tended to by his landlady of forty years, Madame Lefevre. As they embark on their first ever conversation, Feliks surprises himself by revealing that Paris is not where he considers home and indeed that he has no idea where home for him would be. Separated from his family as a child when the Nazis invaded Poland, Feliks has spent his life producing a travel guide to Iron Curtain countries for Western readers.

However, following the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the imminent retirement of his long-term publisher, Feliks finds himself tipped into a maelstrom which he cannot avoid. As he journeys for the first time to America to sell his travel guide there, Feliks is reunited with his half-brother, Woodrow, who no longer considers himself a Pole but rather an American and nothing more. Feeling his own alien status ever more acutely, Feliks has a growing desire to discover the fate of others from his past.

Embarking on a journey that takes him back to his Polish hometown, to a long-lost love and to the bewildering landscape of a newly reunified Germany, Feliks is forced to confront the truth about his family's and his own past, and to question everything he once believed.

Background to The Breaking of Eggs

The inspiration

The book started with the abstract question “what is home?”, and with the belief that it was a highly emotional concept that different people would identify in quite different ways. This led me to consider what it might be like to be aged about 60 and to have no concept of home. I tried to visualise such a character.

I felt that three ingredients would need to be involved: a severe dislocation during childhood, a working life that involved constant travel and the current absence of close family members. The life story of Feliks Zhukovski was constructed from these elements.

World War II was the most likely cause of childhood dislocation (for at least a reasonably contemporaneous European novel) and Poland the most likely country of birth. I conceived the idea of someone who had spent his life producing a one-man tourist guide to eastern Europe, travelling constantly to update it.

The theme

It was only at this point that the political dimensions of the novel began to emerge, and also what to me became its main theme – why do we believe what we believe?

The mindset of fellow-travellers has always intrigued me. I can quite see how people could have been strongly attracted to the fledgling Soviet Union. But – as details of the realities of the Soviet system began to emerge, and in particular of Stalin’s atrocities – how could people who started out with an idealism for the human condition continue to believe that this system served it in any way?

I think that the answer to this question is to be found not in the system itself, not even in a reluctance to believe the increasingly horrific news that came out of it, but mainly in the emotional and psychological background of the believer. Hence Feliks: someone who thinks his opinions are entirely rational, when in fact – as with all of us – they are the product of his own experiences and the emotions they have engendered.

Background reading

Being the age I am, and with a lifelong interest in politics, I already knew most of the political background to the novel. But I needed to supplement that knowledge with more detailed reading. History books supplied much of the information, and I am especially indebted to A Concise History of Poland by Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki, Rising ’44, Norman Davies’s account of the Warsaw Rising, Stasiland by Anna Funder, The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor and Paris after the Liberation by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper.

I should also mention two deeply moving personal accounts: Roman’s Journey by Roman Halter and My Century by Aleksander Wat. The latter provided the title of the novel: “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” is what some communist sympathisers did say in the '30s when confronted with the realities of Stalin’s regime. I would urge anyone who is interested in the historical background of the novel to read both these books.

Visit to Berlin, Warsaw and Lodz

This was a bizarre journey because, by the time I made it, the characters and their stories had already come so alive for me that it felt like delving into the lives of real people, not imagined ones. The normal practice is to do the research first and then write the book, but I had to do it the other way round.

To see buildings, and to enter stairwells, that had in reality been part of the Lodz ghetto was an extraordinarily moving experience, as was the visit to the obscure Radegast railway sidings at the edge of town, the makeshift station from which the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto were deported to their deaths.

Life does sometimes imitate art and it did twice on this trip. In Berlin, I was lucky enough to find a taxi driver called Andreas, born in the West, who went into East Berlin aged 18 (against the flow, it must be said) the night the Wall fell, and lived in a squat there for several months. When I asked him to produce a stinking apartment block in the east of city where one of the characters might have lived, he said there were plenty of dreary blocks, but none sufficiently filthy. “Never?” I asked, dreading a slight rewrite. “Well some of them were once,” he said, “but only when the young far Right moved in.”

In Lodz, where I was enormously grateful to Tomasz Koralewski of the Tourist Board and Maciej Kronenberg of the University for their generous time and infinite patience, we settled on Wschodnia Street as a plausible site for the Zhukovski apartment. By then, I had already established Jozef Pilsudski as Teresa Zhukovska’s hero. “Wait,” said Maciej, as I was attempting to spell ‘Wschodnia’ correctly, “actually, for a short time in the '30s – between Pilsudski’s death and the War – it was called Pilsudski Street, because he once lived here.”

If the process of writing a novel set in an actual historical context should be to make that context come alive for the reader, this visit is what made it come alive for the writer.
Jim Powell

Jim Powell was born in London in 1949 and was educated at Cambridge. His first career was in advertising, becoming Managing Director of a major London agency. He then started a pottery business, producing hand-painted tableware for leading stores. He was previously active in politics, contesting the 1987 Election and collaborating with former Foreign Secretary Francis Pym on his book The Politics of Consent. He lives in Northamptonshire.

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ISBN: 9780297859772
ISBN-10: 0297859773
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 352
Published: 1st June 2010
Country of Publication: GB
Dimensions (cm): 23.3 x 15.2  x 2.4
Weight (kg): 0.47
Edition Number: 1