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The phrase “too many queens, not enough spotlights” should give a glimpse into the anarchic feel of Michał Witkowski’s debut novel, Lovetown (Portobello Books). The self-proclaimed ‘queens’ of Lovetown, who exclusively refer to each other by feminine names, revel in what they see as the glorious heyday of Polish Communist-era sex, equal measures grim and liberating.
The novel follows a writer, also named Michał Witkowski (“Michalina La Belletriste they call me; formerly I was known as Snowflake”), gathering stories for a book. He visits first with Lucretia and Patricia, two older queens, in their run-down apartment, before heading to Lubiewo, a “lewd beach.” In both places, he’s regaled with stories: how the queens one-up each other, how they gossip, and, most importantly, how they search for the ever-elusive ‘grunt,’ a straight man (oftentimes a Russian soldier) who can be cajoled into sex.
But the character of Witkowski is a minor presence; instead, he serves more as a sympathetic ear for other voices clamoring to be heard. And as they recount their stories, their ribald adventures accrue into a portrait of pre-capitalist Polish gay life. Imagine the Canterbury Tales, if all of the tales were the “Miller’s Tale,” and the Miller himself were a prissy homosexual.
Translator W. Martin explains, in his Afterword, that after its initial publication in Poland in 2005, Witkowski fielded numerous calls from men who wanted to contribute their own experiences, and consequently, Lovetown has gone through six published revisions, as Witkowski incorporated their material.
But the novel never feels like an assemblage or a work of reportage. Indeed, as if to suggest the variability of identity, the narrative voice continually morphs. At times, Witkowski’s character serves as an interlocutor; at others, Witkowski’s presence disappears entirely, allowing the queen to narrate from the first-person. At times, only snippets of conversation can be heard, leaving the reader to supply his own context. Other taxomonic sections—”The Great Atlas of Polish Queens” and “Theory of Swish,” for instance—take on an almost academic tone. Although this destabilizing effect may turn off those who prefer consistency in their novels, it also delivers a dizzying, kaleidoscopic feel, like a mad flurry of sequins and feathers.
In this, Witkowski’s work bears a strong resemblance to that of Polish modernist Witold Gombrowicz. Like Gombrowicz, Witkowski has a flair for the absurd, such as tabloid reports of UFOs on the beach or a sudden attack of pubic lice. Even more to the point, both Gomborwicz and Witkowski are intrigued by the clash of traditional and contemporary values.
For Witkowski, this includes not-so-subtle digs at contemporary gay male culture, which Witkowski derides as “plastic.” The modern gay men who arrive at the beach have come, Witkowski writes, to “drag us out of our pre-emancipatory gutter—in short, they wanted to give us something useful to do. No fats, no fems.”
Witkowski admits that he has no interest in writing “a narrative about two middle-class, educated gay men, doctoral students in management and finance, who wear glasses and woolly jumpers.” By exploring the transgressive elements of society—both at large and within the gay community itself—Withkowski emphasizes how those at the margins can sometimes loom larger than life in the imagination.
This is not to say that the novel dwells in the golden age fallacy. Indeed, Witkowski doesn’t shy away from the more brutal truths, as well: crackdowns, imprisonment, and, oftentimes, death from illness or violence. But, as told through the queens’ voices, these issues feel as weighty as chiffon. This balance of lightness and darkness doesn’t nullify the terror, but rather insists that life is for the living. And why not live in the spotlight, if only for a moment?
By Michal Witkowski (translated by W. Martin)
Paperback, 9781846270529, 343 pp.