Lovetown, By Michal Witkowski, trans W Martin

Reviewed,Richard Canning
Friday 14 May 2010 00:00 BST

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)

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