Sunday 6 May 2012

Archive article - Poland's First Gay Novel

Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition, part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house in December 2006

Poland’s First Gay Novel

Just as it was about time that Polish politicians became ensnared in a sex scandal, so it also seems overdue that a writer should pen the country’s first-ever gay novel.

Though it will not be published in English until 2008 – when the UK-based Portobello Books brings it out - translated extracts from Michal Witkowski’s book, Lubiewo, are already available on the web (see the links below). What they provide is a fascinating glimpse into the little-heard-of gay subculture that is alive and kicking beneath Catholic Poland’s unsustainably rigid façade of sexual propriety.

Shortlisted for Poland’s top literary prize, the Nike, in 2006, Lubiewo – along with five other candidates – lost out to flavour-of-the-month Dorota Maslowska’s latest offering, yet some observers thought that Witkowski had been hard done by.

Anyone who has read British writer Alan Hollinghurst’s work might well be advised to sample Witkowski’s too as a supplement of sorts, because the same frank exploration of the casual relationships that seemingly characterise male homosexuality is just as much a concern for the Polish novelist as it is for the 2004 Booker Prize winner. “What is it about being gay that allows for such unfettered sexual activity?” you will find yourself asking - perhaps even with a little envy - if you happen to be straight. Witkowski’s characters go around as if Radio Maryja, Wojciech Wierzejski and the rest of those assorted, arch-Catholic, ‘sex-crime’ freaks were just some sick, homophobic product of one’s worst nightmares.

“They talk about each other in the feminine, they pretend to be women, and not so long ago they were still picking up guys in the park, behind the Opera and at the train station,” Witkowski writes. “Who knows how much of that is true, how much is legend, and how much simply kidding. But one thing is sure: they are just two of the unnumbered masses of people addicted to sex. They are experts at cruising! Even now, pot-bellied senior citizens, they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. None have ever heard of plastic surgery or sex-change operations. A flourish or two of their ordinary black satchels, which they call “purses,” is enough. They wear what they have — the essence of communist-era mediocrity.”

This extract is, quite simply, stunning, even though the prose on its own does not amount to much. Just as with his contemporary Maslowska, Witkowski’s writing reads as if he’s running out of time, making you suspect he’s determined to slap the words down onto the page asap. In this way he differs markedly to Hollinghurst, whose measured distance from the sleaze he depicts makes it that much more alluring.

That said, maybe there is a method to Witkowski’s haste.

Who, outside of it, knows anything about the Polish gay scene, at the end of the day? Not me for one, give or take the occasional, usually incidental, visit to a club. Perhaps Witkowski, as with Maslowska, really is in a rush. This is the new Poland, they are aching to tell us – the real Poland - behind all the cynicism and bigotry that all too often grabs the headlines. This, in other words, is the news, they are crying out to tell us.

Read that extract from Lubiewo once more. And then take a trip around town and try to imagine the lives of the people you see. Yesterday, “pot-bellied senior citizens” would have seemed just that and that only. “Addicted to sex”?, “Experts on cruising”? Somehow, I do not think so. 

Despite all their obvious flaws, young writers such as Michal Witkowski are doing the world an invaluable service. They are telling us that Poland, pace the conservative myths, is rampantly diverse. And all that means is that it is actually quite normal.

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