Portobello £12.99 343pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Lovetown, By Michal Witkowski, trans W Martin

Is anything about gay life now untold? In the West, it feels as if all bases are covered. Leading practitioners in fiction, such as Edmund White, have admitted as much. Most European literatures, however, have not approached this critical mass. Many have not experienced even the first tremors of gay representation.

Poland, for instance, was blessed with a writer of the first rank, Witold Gombrowicz, who can be said to have possessed a singular "gay aesthetic". Yet the novel for which he is most remembered, Ferdydurke (1937), isn't really about marginal sexuality.

Michal Witkowski's Lovetown, which pays tribute to Gombrowicz, was a succès de scandale in 2005, the author barely 30. It was taken to be the first Polish "queer" novel, but gay themes have only fleetingly surfaced elsewhere. Lovetown has become something very rare: a gay-themed crossover bestseller. It is of interest to foreign readers not simply because it looks at homosexuality in a different landscape. Witkowski chose – after interviewing scores of Polish drag queens, ex-rentboys, disco bunnies and every conceivable gay "type" – to base his novel around the political changes of the 1980s, and their impact on gay men's lives. Instead of merely disinterring a period that seemed crude or repressed, Witkowski allows his dissident voices to challenge the notion that capitalism has benevolently triumphed in Poland, bringing prosperity and also every accompanying gay bauble to a backward people.

The gritty world before 1989 is perversely celebrated by cross-dressing "Patricia", who opines: "Everything is going to the dogs. Under communism, plucking a recruit off the train was a piece of cake." For her, the occupying Russian soldiers had constituted a feast, readily picked off from their all-male camps by wilful, rapacious drag queens now given to mourning: "Where is my Sasha now, where's my Vanya, my Dmitri?"

"Lubiewo" itself (Lovetown – a fictive beach resort, alongside the German border) is quickly deluged by the first converts to Western gay lifestyles (fitness regimes), vanities (a masculine look) and the logistics of social assimilation (gay parenting). Buffed bodies crowd the beach from East Germany, or Western-leaning Poznan. Witkowski's queens-of-a-certain-age recoil in disgust, treasuring, paradoxically, a yesteryear of certain oppression, discretion, poverty, Aids... and yet also of sexual opportunity.

No British author – except, perhaps, Neil Bartlett – has come close to examining the generational tensions which accompanied the emergence of an bourgeois, aspirational gay culture. Yet every triumphant new order has its dissidents and lost souls. As Paula mournfully reflects at the end of this bracing, strident, surprisingly beautiful novel: "What good has emancipation done me?"

Richard Canning's most recent book is 'EM Forster' (Hesperus)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea