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Good Old Queens

Robert Looby

 

Lubiewo, by Michał Witkowski, korporacja ha!art, 310 pp, 29 zlotys, ISBN: 83-89911043
(A translation of Lubiewo, by William Martin, will be published as Lovetown by Portobello Books in 2010.)

The Kaczyński twins did a lot of harm to Poland’s public image. Lech was president from 2005 to the present and Jarosław was the power behind prime minister Marcinkiewicz from 2005 to 2006 before becoming prime minister himself and ruling from 2006 to 2007.

It was especially unfortunate that the brothers were in power at a time when, after their accession to the European Union in 2004, Poles were emigrating in huge numbers to Western Europe, bringing their country back into the public eye of the West. Attention turned eastward at just the time Poland turned weird. Kaczyński’s party, Law and Justice (PiS), ruled in coalition with Samoobrona (“Self Defence”), an agrarian party, and the League of Polish Families (LPR), an extremely conservative right-wing party associated with the All-Polish Youth organisation, which has organised “Normality Parades” in answer to “Equality Parades”. The most conservative elements had gained the upper hand.

Thus, Europeans curious about their Polish neighbours were treated to stories and pictures of pro-gay equality parades being illegally banned by Lech Kaczyński, then still mayor of Warsaw. The 2005 parade went ahead anyway, while activists from the All-Polish Youth organisation looked on, throwing eggs and chanting – well, you can guess what they chanted. Interior minister Ludwik Dorn (sometimes known as “the third twin” though now in the political wilderness) highly praised the eight hundred police on duty for their actions. They arrested one hundred demonstrators. On the lighter side, we had the spectacle of the children’s ombudsman calling for an investigation of the Teletubbies on the suspicion that one of them was gay and thus promoting homosexuality to children.

PiS has since lost power, LPR and Samoobrona barely exist and elections will determine the fate of President Kaczyński in 2010, but Poland remains a socially conservative country where the Catholic Church has great influence. Bishop Pieronek, perceived as being on the liberal wing of the Church, has described homosexuality as an aberration (quoted in Nie (No) magazine, October 29th, 2009). Gay marriage will not be on the agenda any time soon. True, no Lithuanian-style law forbidding all public promotion of homosexuality has been passed but Nie magazine rang around politicians of all strands and found support for such a law running high (these are the same politicians who are in the process of criminalising the wearing of Che Guevara T-shirts on the grounds that they promote totalitarianism). Prof Krystyna Czuba, an ethicist, is quoted in Polityka as saying homosexuals are a “marginal, isolated group that do not identify either with national culture or tradition” (Polityka, October 24th, 2009). Hardly a week passes without such quotable quotes. Arguments about sex education in schools are more or less constant, with homosexuals routinely labelled “sick” and “deviant”. Wojciech Cejrowski, a very popular travel broadcaster and writer in the land that gave the world Ryszard Kapuściński, refused to sign a book for members of the Anti-Homophobia Campaign. “I won’t accept anything from fags because I don’t want to get HIV,” he said. The chief of the Solidarity trade union in the Catholic University of Lublin called for the striking out of a tolerance clause from the university’s work regulations. You still see, from time to time, on bus stops and lamp posts, stickers saying “Zakaz pedałowania” (“Faggotry Forbidden”) and gay rights parades are still beset by Young Poland activists.

In such a climate did a young Michał Witkowski (born 1975) publish Lubiewo (translated by William Martin as Lovetown, to be published by Portobello Books in 2010), a novel about the gay scene in Poland past and present. So how was it received? Very well, actually. It ran through its first edition handily enough and made its author famous, attracting very positive reviews, though often accompanied with health warnings. “Dazzling, uncompromising and – I warn you – dreadfully crude,” wrote one reviewer (Dariusz Nowacki), while another wrote: “I would warn more sensitive readers about its ubiquitous and dominant vulgarity. But I do recommend reading it or listening to it” (Lidia Czerniga; the novel is available as an audio book, read by Witkowski). It received favourable notices in literary magazines such as Lampa (Lamp) and the somewhat more staid Nowe Książki (New Books). A reviewer in the influential daily Gazeta Wyborcza (Robert Ostaszewski) commended Witkowski’s style, saying he could turn a telephone directory into a brilliantly witty story.

Witkowski has been nominated for the Nike (the goddess, not the shoe) literary award twice, in 2006 and 2007, and won the “Passport” literary prize awarded by Polityka, Poland’s most widely read and respected current affairs magazine, for his novel Barbara Radziwiłłówna z Jaworzna-Szczakowej. Polish readers then have embraced this openly gay writer. Nor are they the only ones. Lubiewo has been translated into over a dozen languages and the back cover of his latest novel, Margot, tells us its Swedish rights were sold even before the book appeared in Polish. Witkowski may not be a household name (reading has been in decline in Poland for twenty years) but he writes regularly for Polityka, and appears on television. Like Jacek Dehnel, another openly gay young writer, there is little suggestion that he has to hide his identity to make his way in the world of literature.

Lubiewo falls into two parts. In the first, “The Book of the Street”, two ageing men, Patrycja and Lukrecja, share their reminiscences with the narrator, who is armed with a dictaphone. In Polish, with few exceptions, men’s names end in a consonant, women’s in “a”. Patrycja and Lukrecja have chosen these feminine names for themselves. They are not so much gays (geje) as queens (cioty), which is how they refer to themselves. Ciota is a very pejorative term, a world away from the domesticated “gay”. The narrator too, it becomes clear, is homosexual (he changes Michał to Michalina). Thus, he is no outsider studying a strange and exotic social group but rather an insider, interviewing his elders about the way things were. Lubiewo is about gays – or rather, unemancipated queens – but it is also very much about the passage of time and in particular the changeover from a somehow cosy, stable communist Poland to the cold mercies of the Third Republic, ie post-1989 Poland.

The past makes itself felt from the very beginning: “I ride up in a rickety lift to the fourth floor of a sad, Gomułka-era tower block”. Gomułka was first secretary of the Polish communist party (though the word “communist” does not appear in its name) in the late 1950s and 1960s. Those tower blocks are still there, all over Poland, though perhaps in the 1960s the buttons in the lift were not “scorched with cigarettes”. What is gone – at least from Patrycja and Lukrecja’s lives – is the comfort of institutionalised life. Patrycja at one time worked in a cultural centre (literally “house of culture”) under communism. These institutions survive to this day, teaching ballet and music, organising art exhibitions and housing theatre companies. “It was easy work and the pay was like anywhere else” is Witkowski’s admirably succinct summation of the communist-era work ethic in Poland. But now in the cultural centre “every room houses a different company and the front is covered in signs telling you on which floor you’ll find the pawn shop, the foreign exchange office, the pool club and the graveside candle wholesalers. Where once ungainly workers danced there is now a store romantically named ‘Everything for 5 zlotys or less’”. Patrycja is now retired, finding it difficult to make ends meet but happy to be out of this new house of culture: “She never let the Third Republic into her house.”. (They use feminine grammatical forms when speaking of themselves.) Nothing has changed in their flat since communism. They listen to vinyl records and the narrator is surprised to see them water flowers from a milk bottle – glass has not been used for milk bottles in Poland for many years. Witkowski’s description of their flat is vivid and well-observed (“ferns and banal plants in flowerpots such as you’ll find on window sills in every state-run clinic or hospital”) but there is little enough to see because it is only a “waiting room, where time has to be spent between nighttime hunts”.

For Patrycja and Lukrecja are no elegant, dignified homosexual couple growing old gracefully together: “they are a part of the by no means small group of people addicted to sex”. Until not long ago they were still cruising the park and the train station, looking for their favourite prey, luje, or “hetero meat” – though a gay (actually they use the word pedał or “faggot”) can be a luj too, as long as he is a block of man, simple, unsophisticated, uneducated and with no feelings. They do not speak in terms of LGBT rights, or sexual orientation or genderedness. They use words like “faggot” and “queen” and engage in unsafe sexual practices. They are shockingly vulgar, moving – or rather loitering – in a world of public toilets and dodgy pick-up joints. The narrator despairs of ever publishing such unsavoury material. (If I were nitpicking I would point out here that he must have known what to expect, as he is a part of this milieu himself.)

However, Lubiewo is more than just a narrow slice of life in one milieu. It is a broader and at times nearly nostalgic (though never sentimental) picture of recent Polish history: “Where are the stories, sticky from sweet cakes and dirty from cigarette ash?” Witkowski asks. In “those remote times” there were no “galleries” (the idiotic new word for shopping centres in Poland), the sauna was known as the “State Bathing Complex” (Państwowe Zakłady Kąpielowe) (39), and carrier bags advertised the virtues of chemicals. You went on holidays or to the sanatorium as a right and while there you were served proper meals, not fast food.

The gay scene is never far away from these memories of the past though. Back then, journalists and the “elite” of society did not go to gay bars, which were identifiable by the smell of corruption, not, as now, by neon lights or suggestive names, and served cognac and unfiltered coffee in glasses – suddenly it is the narrator himself, aged fifteen in 1988, who is reminiscing. It is the narrator who introduces us to the habitués of the late communist era café that black market moneychangers and gays frequented: Lady Tomato, Beautiful Helena, the Countess and Jessica, the first to contract AIDs, a western, capitalist invention in the eyes of the queens. As in Lou Reed’s Halloween Parade from the 1989 album New York (“there’s no Peter Pedantic, saying things romantic”), it becomes a roll call of the departed. The café manager, “Mother Joanna of the Faggots” (a reference to the Iwaszkiewicz short story, later filmed, “Mother Joanna of the Angels”), “belonged to that type of person that disappeared completely after the fall of communism”. The moneychangers, one may presume, are respectable businessmen these days, now earning their second, legal million, but the ranks of the gays have been thinned by AIDs and untimely death. The first part ends powerfully, with a description of Jessica’s last days.

Part two, set in the present day, is much more fragmented, jumping sometimes abruptly from character to character and episode to episode, interspersed with personal ads from gay dating services, and – in sharp contrast to part one – with no clear ending. It is set in the Lubiewo of the title, a Polish seaside resort popular with gays and queens (to keep with the book’s division), whose name, Witkowski writes, derives from lubieżny (lecherous, obscene, indecent). It describes the narrator’s stay there and the characters he meets. He is still gathering information about the past but there is also much about modern mores, including a field guide to queens (“The Great Atlas of Polish Queens”) which describes the habits and preferences of “Style Queens”, “Gothic Queens”, “Consumerist Queens” and other types.

Part one’s menacing atmosphere of the public toilets in the park, with its undergrowth, dripping leaves and permanently bad weather, fades into the background. Here and now, in modern Poland, all is sunny and enlightened. But Witkowski, like Patrycja and Lukrecja, remains defiantly old school. In the future, he says, “there will be no gay beaches, bars for fags, or little magazines … There will be no ghetto. Faggotry will be so transparent that no one will notice a guy kissing a guy on an ordinary beach. But luckily, Paula, we will not be around to see it.” He has little time for the “group from Poznań” that he meets on the beach: “They speak of themselves using masculine forms. They are in their ‘emancipation phase’. […] They go Scorpio Bar. They fight for the right to marry and adopt. Generally speaking they fight, they strive. They speak the language of Polityka and Wprost [news] magazine.” They are cultured, vote Green, use condoms, go steady. They have good jobs. With their shaven, well-maintained torsos, peroxide hair and their friendliness, they repel the narrator. They are almost like a family, he thinks, when what he wants is “a stranger that will go through me for a shortcut, destroy me, take me like a tornado and leave me in such a state I won’t even have the strength to stand up.” It is not just the right-on gays that irritate the narrator. It seems to be much of contemporary Poland, with its text messaging and internet portals. The shopping centre, he comments, is for the modern middle class what the public toilet was for faggots (sic) – ie a place of mutual masturbation. This is quite an attack on modern values: Poles love their bright, modern, well-stocked shops, and those who can remember the eighties are never slow to remind you that under communism there were queues for everything except vinegar and that it was wise to suck up to the workers in butcher shops as meat was always in short supply.

So when Witkowski writes “And I’m a mean old unfit intolerant over the top queen, closed to all your discourses like a communist butcher shop after six”, it is hard not to read into this a certain dissatisfaction with the Third Republic. We are sometimes given to believe that this stubborn attachment to the communist past with all its faults is characteristic of an older generation of poorly educated (usually rural) people who will fortunately (sic) die out soon. In fact I have encountered remarkably little bitterness about the communist regime among people born, like Witkowski, in the 1970s, whose childhood passed through some dark days indeed – food shortages and martial law. The stories in his collection Fototapeta (Photoprint Wallpaper, 2006) deal more directly with communist times, describing trips to Russia and East Germany in the 1980s, but even when he parodies the “self-criticisms” of Stalinist show trials, there is little of the bitterness that sometimes mars the work of older Polish writers.

Witkowski has insisted that in Lubiewo he set out to write an entirely apolitical book: “I wanted to be as far away as possible from the newspapers – adoption, AIDs, emancipation, parades – and as close as possible to experience, which is literarily much more interesting” (interview with Jarosław Lipszyc, http://free.art.pl/michal.witkowski/dorobek/lubiewo_18.php). Indeed, what we have in Lubiewo is a panorama of Poland in years of great turmoil without the stock heroic underground opposition and the stock brutal militia (police) officer. Witkowski’s characters are unheroic, unengaged, unpolitical. For Lukrecja and Patrycja the barracks where Soviet soldiers are stationed (on Polish soil!) are an opportunity, not a symbol of oppression. They fraternise with the enemy and it is their sexual orientation – not Gomułka or Kaczyński – that drives them underground. Now they despair of fraternising: Polish army recruits have “practically unlimited access to pussy”. When Patrycja expresses the hope that Germany will occupy Poland the narrator notes “Patrycja has obviously never heard of NATO.” Joining NATO was one of the Third Republic’s proudest moments in the last two decades (the other was joining the European Union; Poland has yet to win the Eurovision Song Contest). Witkowski is trampling on the holiest of holies here. Public discourse is very strongly in favour of the increasing Europeanisation of Poland, which is proceeding apace as the country becomes blander and blander, the shops more and more like British, French and German shops and as English pushes its way ever more forcefully into the language. Witkowski seems to be satirising this in the title of the second part of the book, “Ciotowski Bicz”, a complicated play on words. Ciotowski is the adjective of ciota and Bicz can be understood as (among other things) the English “beach” or “bitch”: Polish learners of English have difficulty distinguishing between the two sounds.

One of the two emerytki (female pensioners, though they are actually men) that the narrator interviews in Lubiewo reminisces about the employer-organised communal holidays in converted railway carriages in the woods they used to go on with their workmates. “In those days you had more of a feeling you were in Poland because there were Polish products in the shops, Polish music on the radio and you only travelled in Poland because it wasn’t easy to get a passport. And a body felt Polish. You washed the dishes with ‘Ludwik’…”. (And, they admit, the peace and quiet of communist holidays was disturbed by loudspeakers nailed to trees.) The narrator contrasts this favourably with the Europeanised gays a few miles over the border, in Germany. In this part of Lubiewo, “luckily good old queens and jovial old ladies rule”. And although the two pensioners are “fiddling about down below” there is nothing particularly “scene” about the rejection of modern values. Although this perhaps does not add up to a political statement, it places Witkowski among a group of otherwise disparate younger Polish writers – among whom I would include Dorota Masłowska, Sylwia Chutnik and Marta Dzido – no longer fighting the cold war but showing a quite proper scepticism about the fruits of Poland’s victory in that war, a scepticism often missing from the media and from the work of older writers.

Dominant in most of Witkowski’s work (two collections of short stories and two other novels) is not the homosexual theme but the backward look and the tendency of characters to fantasise and invent. On the inside cover of Fototapeta he writes: “I think most people live in some kind of fiction. ‘Harsh’ reality would be unbearable. They live in a world of television serials and soaps, a world of fashion catalogues. […] Under communism one’s imagination was enough.” In Lubiewo there is a great deal of invention on the part of characters but also – presumably? possibly? – on the part of the narrator, who admits he does not know how much of their stories is folklore and how much is true. Only “full-on heteros” have no room for irony or play, “to say nothing of camp”, though they too are “up to their ears in social roles”. Patrycja, occasionally working as a night porter in the house of culture in the days before round the clock television, imagines that “she is a baroque lady with a huge crinoline and a high-piled wig, travelling in her carriage to her lover. That her name is something totally unpronounceable and she hides here face behind a gigantic fan. Water dripped from the roof into a bucket and the wind howled outside but she stood up periodically and made herself coffee and tea by turns with a heating element, added vodka and returned to her carriage, to Versailles, to a dress so big several lovers and a vial of poison could be hidden under its skirts.” The narrator later tries to dream up an intrigue like the “Viscount Valmont” to get rid of some unwanted company and refers to himself at times as Alexis – presumably Alexis Carrington from Dynasty. Patrycja and Lukrecja’s power, we read, lies in their words. They have nothing else and construct their identities not with money but with words and gestures. Likewise with the “female pensioners”, whose given names are the decidedly masculine, typically Polish and rather old-fashioned Zdzisław and Wiesław.

Given this tendency to create one’s own identity we should take, in particular, the field guide to Polish queens with a grain of salt. Are there really such distinct sub-groups as “Intellectual Queens” and “Artist Queens” or is Witkowski sending up the journalistic penchant for discovering and labelling ever smaller and more exotic splinters of the general population? In his latest novel, Margot, one of the main characters is embraced by the media because he is supposedly a “bus stopper”, the rural equivalent of a “blocker” (a disaffected youth who hangs around tower blocks). “Blocker” has functioned in the Polish vocabulary for some years but “bus stopper” is borderline parody. But then again “blockers” were the subject of a film of the same name, and on Polish cinema screens at the moment (late 2009) is a film called Galerianki, which deals with another sub-group: schoolgirl prostitutes who solicit sex in shopping “galleries” (hence the name). It is tempting to see the fragmented form of the second, contemporary part of Lubiewo as a reflection of the nature of modern Polish society and to contrast it with part one/communist Poland: a society for all its ills capable of producing a mass and aptly named movement like Solidarity. Nowadays Poles are among the most mutually distrustful people in Europe. In 2007 only 11.5 per cent supported the view that most people can be trusted (Social Diagnosis 2007, p. 24).

Witkowski has a solid body of well-received work to his name but in the short term most English-speaking readers will have access only to Lubiewo. It may not be an in-depth psychological portrait of its characters (there is little distinguishable difference between Patrycja and Lukrecja, for example) but it offers a fascinating and well told story of more than just the gay scene in Poland. There are sides of Polish life here that will not be too well known to Western readers more accustomed to tales of fortitude in the face of the communist threat. Lubiewo will probably be shelved under queer literature (though I’ve yet to see such a section in a Polish bookshop) but Michał Witkowski has the genuine writer’s gift of making any subject interesting to any reader.

An extract from William Martin’s translation of Lubiewo can be found here:

http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=Witkowski

References:

Michał Witkowski, Margot, Świat Książki, Warsaw, 2009.

Michał Witkowski, Barbara Radziwiłłówna z Jaworzna-Szczakowej, WAB, Warsaw, 2007.

Michał Witkowski, Fototapeta, WAB, Warsaw, 2006

Czapiński, Janusz and Tomasz Panek, Social Diagnosis 2007: Objective and Subjective Quality of Life in Poland, Council for Social Monitoring, Warsaw, 2007.

http://www.diagnoza.com/data/report/report_2007.pdf

Czerniga, Lidia. “Nigdy nie ukrywałem, że jestem ciotą - Lubiewo Michała Witkowskiego,” Jan 6th 2007.

http://www.wiadomosci24.pl/artykul/nigdy_nie_ukrywalem_ze_jestem_ciota_lubiewo_michala_15917.html

Kępiński, Piotr. “Metamorfozy szalonej Margot,” Newsweek, Aug 23rd 2009.

http://www.newsweek.pl/artykuly/sekcje/newsweek_kultura/metamorfozy-szalonej-margot,42709,1

Nowacki, Dariusz. “Lubiewo, Witkowksi, Michał,” Gazeta Wyborcza, Jan 3rd 2005.

http://wyborcza.pl/1,75517,2475361.html

Ostaszewski, Robert. “Barbara Radziwiłłówna z Jaworzna-Szczakowej, Witkowski, Michał,” Gazeta Wyborcza, Aug 20th 2008.

http://wyborcza.pl/1,82204,4403709.html


Robert Looby teaches English and translation at the Catholic University of Lublin. His research interests include translation and censorship.

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