Lovetown is a superbly written and unconventional gay novel that can be read in a number of ways. It is the book’s informative character, however, that will be most important to the majority of readers. Michał Witkowski exposes a world that has never before been portrayed: the gay underground. Departing radically from both political correctness and the aesthetic sublimation so characteristic of homoerotic Polish writing in the twentieth century, he allows the homosexually desiring Other to remain the Other — without embellishing or glorifying their world. This is what makes Lovetown so vulgar and provocative. The book need not be read as a scandalous documentary article, however. Its artistic values allow one to read it as an appealing contemporary novel — playful and bawdy, witty and rife with brilliant observations (and not just on more indecorous matters). As far as the plot is concerned, the first part of the novel portrays the protagonist and omniscient narrator as they listen to two older gay men in Wrocław bragging about their amorous conquests. In the second part, which takes place on a beach in the Baltic town of Lubiewo, a number of emancipated gay men encounter and confront a group of those whose masochistic love life continues to take place in the squalor of public toilets. Witkowski presents on the one hand middle-class gay men, supporters of gay marriage and activists for gay rights, and on the other gays who resist copying the norms claimed by the heterosexual majority. The opposition between these groups generates the tension that is the driving force of this brilliant first novel.
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. 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. Neither has 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. All they need is to hold their cigarettes a little differently, to shave every day, and use their words, their language. In their language lies their power. They have nothing; everything they have they have to think up, lie up, sing up. Today you can buy whatever you want: your sex, eye color, hair — no place left for the imagination. And that is why they would rather be poor and “play.”
“Oh stop, Honey!” Now Patricia “swivels” and pours tea into a chipped cup, an old and grimy teacup, but on a saucer anyway and with a serviette. Form, form is what matters. And language.
“Oh stop it! My salad days are long over, even my butt sags, oh where oh where are the snows of yesteryear? Christ, what a fruity-pie! Crazy lady! Do you mind? Old Villon said it best: It’s better to pick boys. And boy could we pick ’em!”
“Swiveling” means acting like a woman — whatever they understand by that — flapping their hands and squealing, saying things like “Oh stop!’ and “Christ, Christine!” Or going up to a guy, holding their bent wrists up to his face and saying, “Hold your head higher, Puppy, when you talk at me.”
They do not want to be women; they want to be recumbent men. That’s how they like it, how they were their whole lives: pretend femmes. To actually be a women would be missing the point — it’s the pretense that excites, the fulfillment would be… but fulfillment isn’t a word in their language. They only have expressions like “hungry,” “unfulfilled,” “chilly night,” “the wind,” and “come here.” Their regular station in the higher regions of the depths, between the train station, where the measliest pickings were, and the public toilet in the park. The shithole of the world as it were.
As it happens, someone lined this shithole with sawdust and rags just for them. Just like home.
A person always had enough with that canned soup, the potatoes, the subsidies of socialism, you always had enough to eat, a roof over your head — a lady can make do. Now in that park of theirs they’re building a big Shopping Arcade, burying their history, so Patricia decides to protest. But she’s only kidding. More bitterly and sadly every time.
“What can a bag lady like me say? Go after Big Capital with our canes? Hit it over the head with our purses? And what am I supposed to tell them, it’s a historic site? Oh go, Lucretia, go get the ashtray, the gentleman has nowhere to flick (ha! ha!) to flick… his aaaaassshh!”
Patricia suddenly realizes she’s called herself a “bag lady” and she’s delighted over the new joke. It has a drop of humiliation in it, somewhere in the depths. And Patricia is already making plans to drink it, to lick it up like a drop of egg nog from the depths’ glass rim. Tonight.
“So I’m on my way to the park. First I go to the kiosk and buy some cigarettes like I’ve been doing for years. They’re fine; they’re not harmful to my health at all. Then I see this guy I knew way back, made himself a name, being in business and all. But then he gives me this look like I’m a hooker or something, like I’m walking the street down by the station. Well, I suppose I am walking the street. But I’m not anyone’s hooker… So I listen to what he says, but none of it has anything to do with me, something about the credit. Can you believe it. He’s got the credit but he’s losing his job. And I’m thinking, Honey, if all I needed was credit to make me happy. So I’m having all these philosophical thoughts, and Lucia Kąpielowa, who I confided them to, agrees with me. That we’re living in the highest regions of the depths, like in paradise. Nothing can threaten us, and” — Lucretia lazily stretches out her entire body— “there’s a meaning to life!” — and licks herself indecently.
I’m sitting at the wobbly table in the kitchen of their decrepit apartment. Nothing has changed here since communism. All around me are gold Taiwanese watches from the market, barometers from the market, glittery figurines from the market, all of it from Russia. Even their speech is full of Russianisms:
“Not much he has in his trousers…”
Grinding poverty. Their laundry dries on a line hung over the stove. Men’s underwear, all of it black, the cheapest brand; darned socks, also black. Primarily because black is weird, and secondarily because mourning is the rule in this household. Has been for over a decade.
Lucretia assumes the pose of an old countess whom the turmoil of war has deprived of her entire fortune; she crosses her legs (between her sock and the edge of her brown trousers leg a pale calf appears, tattooed with a web of veins), lights a cigarette, holds in the smoke a moment then releases it with a deep sigh, like a lady lost in revery. They put on their favorite by Anna German. The record on the record player spins:
In the café on the corner there’s a concert every night
Stay there in the doorway you dancing Eurydices
Before the walls are streaked with the day’s first light
May your drunken Orpheuses
Hold you in their arms…
They offer me a cup of sweet, lukewarm tea. Their apartment is furnished like the waiting room of a clinic. It’s clear just how little people need to survive when they “live” by other means, when their apartment is merely a waiting room, somewhere to spend the time between nocturnal hunts. The bottom halves of the walls are painted with a yellow oil-based paint, the top halves are dirty; on the window sills are white plastic pots of conventional weeds and a recently withered jade tree. I wait for them finally to sit down to their tea and cigarettes. For them to stop running around. But the moment one sits, the other suddenly realizes she needs to spray her underarms with deodorant and brush her hair in front of the cracked mirror. In addition, something is cooking in the kitchen, and Lucretia gets up to water the plants with a milk bottle. Who knows where they got that from. They preen and primp themselves the whole time. As it happens, guests are rare in this house of mourning.
Translated by W. Martin