Neil Bartlett enters a post-communist world in which gays hanker after the bad old days
If the official narrative of gay men’s lives over the last 50 years has been that of liberation and assimilation, then the unofficial storyline – shrieked in 1,000 bars, whispered in 1,000 cruising grounds – has been an equal and opposite one, celebrating the pleasures, energies and sheer indestructibility of unreconstructed queendom. And the queens in this first novel from Polish author Michal Witkowski, originally published in 2005, are as unreconstructed as they come.
Starting with the intertwined voices of “Patricia” and “Lucretia”, two elderly gentlemen being interviewed by a nervous young journalist in their dingy 1960s socialist tower block in Wroclaw, the book soon swarms with anecdotes from bitter old aunties, all recalling their glory days before the fall of communism. Their complaints about the current state of affairs are not political, you understand; it’s the lack of available Russian soldiers that’s getting them down. Not only that, but humiliation just isn’t what it was; as one queen puts it: “No one has any sense of filth or wrongdoing; it’s all about having fun.”
Readers without a taste for recidivist sentiment or rough trade might wish to look away now – but I would advise them to persist, because as the pages turn and the ladies become ever more garrulous, it is clear that this tale is no more an exercise in downbeat social realism than Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers is a documentary about female market-gardeners. Spinning their deadpan tales of sexual disaster, Witkowski’s queens drop allusions to Rimbaud, Almodóvar, Villon, Gombrowicz and Pasolini as often as they drop their cheap and often-washed underwear.
Overpowered (and occasionally diddled with) by these self-obsessed creatures, the journalist himself gradually becomes seduced by their values as well as their triumphantly inventive, gender-harassing language. The young man who is first shocked and then made jealous by these tales of love among the ruins finds that he has, by the time we reach the delirious final pages, been translated into a flaming old queen himself, dishing out what feels less like recent history than a gloriously acidic rewrite of Les Liaisons Dangereuses – though I don’t remember the Marquise de Merteuil doing that to her staff.
The dark, postmodernist wit of this transformation places the reader in a quandary. Is she or he to join the party, or to watch it from a safe distance? In the Poland in which Witkowski is writing (like the rest of contemporary Europe, especially that part of it which was previously Communist), the vilification and persecution of gay men is supposedly being dissolved by the forces of benign consumerism. In several crucial passages, the denizens of this new, shinier Europe collide with his chosen representatives of the older, darker order.
In one cruel and deliciously unreasonable passage a buffed-up muscle-boy (hobbies: monogamy and civil rights) corners the journalist and demands to know why he isn’t writing the kind of novel that young gay men such as himself enjoy these days – socially responsible ones about monogamy and civil rights. Turning on this hapless representative of bourgeois “liberation” the full linguistic force of his anti-heroines’ scorn, Witkowski makes it clear that contemporary culture abandons at its peril the heritage of survival tactics which his queens cultivated through the dark years. Faced with exclusion and brutality, they kept themselves alive through an unholy marriage of desperation and imagination, constructing an alternative reality that could teach the younger generation a thing or two about empowerment. Or, as a queen called Paula puts it more succinctly in the novel’s closing pages: “So take that darling, and put that in one pan of the scales, and in the other put all those gay bars of yours.”
So, to all readers who might feel either intimated or guilty about enjoying the company of some very old-fashioned queens from a country you’re probably more used to providing your plumber than your literature, reassure yourself that this hilarious, scabrous, sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued (and brilliantly translated) novel is essentially and life-enhancingly political – if by politics we mean who gets to live, and how. Treat yourself; buy it.
Neil Bartlett’s most recent novel is Skin Lane (Serpent’s Tail).