Michał Witkowski’s literary tour de force was "Lubiewo", a novel about the homosexual underground in communist Poland and the beginnings of gay culture in today’s Poland. In this and the books that followed Witkowski has shown himself to be a superb observer of social behaviour, gifted with humour and an excellent ear for language, the chronicler of an era of great change, in which stereotyping and fixed identities have come to an end, and less obvious things have finally had their day. The mixed fortunes of his characters, mainly arising from their alternative sexual orientation, can be regarded as a metaphor for the changes that have undermined things that once seemed certain and universal. It is no accident that the epigraph opening his latest novel is the first line from Ovid’s "Metamorphoses": “Of bodies changed to various forms I sing”. It is a story about Poland, and thus about a part of Europe that is undergoing a violent change of form, affecting people’s beliefs, habits, criteria for making judgements, needs and predilections. The Margot of the title is an unpredictable woman endowed with a large sexual appetite and a very male profession: she is a trucker, driving a refrigerated lorry on international routes. The other main character is Waldek Tangerine, a village lad who has made a name for himself on Big Brother and is a rising star of stage and television. They meet unexpectedly at the parish house of a businessman-priest who has established a media-entertainment empire, and whom Margot meets through her friend from a big Mafioso’s money-laundering hotel. These two and a whole gallery of marginal characters – Asia, a new Polish saint who talks on the radio; Greta, the epitome of macho who drives a German truck and has been given a woman’s nickname; Waldek’s lover, who is known as the Star Growing Old Gracefully; and a small crowd of people from television and show business who now embody the new elite – all feature in Witkowski’s wonderful book.
“Watch your driving, you filthy little prick! Trying to push past me, dickhead? Can’t you see I’m carrying a dangerous load? Dangerous for you, pal! What’s the matter? Doesn’t your Mommy love you? You wanna cause a smash? Do we have a weather situation here? We sure do. Road conditions as you see them? It’s been pissing down for a week. The tire grip ain’t exactly shit-hot! It’s pretty crap weather on the whole. A depression, they’re saying on the radio, a depression over from Scandinavia! Welcome to the summer of the century. Run over my head, why don’t you?! You creep! You sure are fucked, aren’t you, boy? Kiss my ass! Fuck you, motherfucker! Over and out!”
Until finally I stick my head out of the rolled-down window so my gesture has a better chance of penetrating his thick skull. Then he sounds his horn and drives onto the hard shoulder. He makes various lecherous faces and gestures to show what he’d like to do to me. Ha, in your dreams, daddy-O! Get lost, pal. Have a nice day now. Your crankshaft’s too small for me, pal, ha ha ha! They think if there’s a chick driving they’re gonna have to drag along. Honour won’t let him drive behind a woman, so he’s gotta overtake. Even if there’s a junction. But I’m already going at breakneck speed anyway, because I’m fu… but shush. And straight up he’s got lecherous thoughts. Just cos he saw a chick! The road is a chickless desert. Zero babes per mile. Then he says to me on the CB:
“Hey, Margot.” That’s the only thing he can say. “Hey, Margot, pull over and we’ll do some talking! Bye now. Out.”
“That’s the kind of an offer you only get from T-mobile. No way, asshole, fuck you! Over and out. Go find some low bridges.”
“Same to you, sister!”
“Same to me? You creep! Can’t you see I’m a reefer? And you’re just a PKS, right? From the state trucking corp. Know your place, sleazeball. And what the fuck are you flashing all your lights at me for? Want the bears to bite you? The cops are right here with their hair drier at the ready!” He’s got “Kazek” written on his front window. A real little jerk with a moustache and a baseball cap marked HBO. “Go get fucked, Kazek, pal, we’re just coming up to Whoresville, so maybe you’ll get one Black Greta’s finished with! You’ll get the Cripple, ha ha ha! I’ve gotta watch the road now. Bye bye, watch your width!”
“Watch your grip.”
“Width, I said, goddammit, I know grip’s important. But it’s a sacred custom to say ‘watch your width’, and you’re not gonna suddenly up and change the traditions of the road! Watch your grip, sure, but you only say that in winter.”
“So like, where’s this hotel? They got chicks, right? Out.”
“Left, left and left again,” I shout, while turning fast to the right, right and right again. You’re hit, sunk and destroyed, fuck you!”
A little later Margot is stopped by a traffic cop.
“Hey, officer, what for? What? Well, there’s no speedometer… But I was making a stop, Titz can be my witness. I’ve only been going for an hour. My speedometer’s had it, and I’ve got to transport this meat or it’ll go off.
“You ask my boss. It’s a real old wreck. They just don’t make the MANs like they used to. But I like it. It’s so, well…so… so big! I talk to it like a woman, or rather an animal, I call it ‘Ugly Bessie’. Ugly Bessie – it’s a cow’s name, like Buttercup or Daisy – but for an ugly, lazy, clumsy one. But if you treat her right, she gives pretty good milk. A fine of fifteen thousand? Mister Officer! Big vehicle, big fine? Ha, ha, ha, that’s an old one, pity it’s not funny. Well, all right, here’s the company address, Spanish Mariola, Mariola Freight Limited, send it to the boss, Radarowa Street, Warsaw, you ask there, they’ll all tell you. Got a knife right there? Just go ahead and finish me off. The boss’ll go crazy on the spot. You what? Pressure not topped up? I did top it up. How much?” Fuckin’ bears! A guy and a chick – there are lady bears now! “I’ve got to pull in at the nearest parking lot? I’m out of here! Hope I never see you again, officer.” Screw you, and screw you, bear babe! What a thankless job it is to be a pig – all cops are assholes, da di da all cops are assholes, all cops are aaaaaassholes….
OK, so maybe my tires aren’t pumped up all the way, but no sweat, I make it to the Nevada Center. This is America, though a bit in the middle of nowhere. First of all I pump up the frakking tires. That’s it. I’m bushed. Then I fill it up with go-go juice and as a reward I get a meal voucher worth fifteen zees. I take off my gloves, toss them on the seat, switch off the heating, grab my purse, touch up my lipstick in a side mirror the size of a dinner plate, lock the cab and go to the john. The men’s, because there’s no other. This ain’t a chicks’ world. I take out a marker pen and write on the wall:
I’m a babe
With real boobs
My whole life’s
Gone down the tubes
because sometimes something just tugs at my heartstrings and I’ve got to write poetry in the little boys’ room. I take out a fancy gold mirror and touch myself up. I make myself my own mini Paris, kinda spoiled by the godawful stink and the noises from the next cabin. They eat all those hot dogs and pies, burgers and fries they sell here, the whole lot dripping with grease, and that’s the result. I’ll just add a satirical cartoon of Greta and we’ll sign it Herman Transport – that should get her moving. Someone’s been here before me with a pink marker pen and drawn a princess with stars in her eyes, a magic wand, enormous boobs and a CB radio pressed to her ear, and it’s signed: “Asia, the Patron Saint of Truckers”. What do I care! I’ve gone and done a portrait of myself too next to the poem, sharpening up my burger-bloated figure a good deal. Then I tidy my hair a bit, because I got up at five today in a parking lot and I’ve been on the road for two days now.
Freshened up, I go to McDonald’s. I chow down at the “best table” where the Russkies sit, because I’m a reefer – I drive a refrigerator truck, and that’s the aristocracy. Right next to the aquarium. Because at the Nevada there’s a strict hierarchy – there are three diners, of which McDonald’s is numero uno, and inside it there’s a fish tank that only the big fat fish can sit next to, that means the reefers: me, Greta, Zbyszek, Ilaj and the rest, and the Russkies in the fur hats who never stop arguing about who got from Amsterdam to Moscow in how much time. They even count the minutes. It’s a sort of game. (“Sure, you got home, got the vehicle up on a jack and left your wheels spinning!”) Outside McDonald’s the parking lot boss has even built a menagerie – there are peacocks wandering about and cages with rabbits inside.
After reefers in the hierarchy come tanker trucks (they eat in their cabs), because they’ve always got a lot of their liquid goods left “on the walls”, as they say – my pal Baldie transports chocolate, and for every trip he pours nearly ten gallons of chocolate out of the walls into these ordinary plastic mineral water bottles, then he strengthens it, and it’s dee-licious! I just love those little bottles! You strip off the plastic with a knife and you’ve got a perfect cast of a soda bottle – they’re like chocolate Santas, but with a filling. Lowest in the hierarchy are the transporters, the state PKS truckers and the guys who take trailer homes to Germany – we all know what those trailers are like, great big empty things, I ask you. They eat out of the tubs they’ve brought along or whip something up on a gas stove next to the truck. When they ask on the ferry what nationality you are so the Poles won’t get mixed with other nations, they ask a PKS guy, “Are you a Polak?” and he replies, “No, a PKS”. Ha ha ha! And they’ve gotta know who’s who to make sure the reefers don’t get put in a single cabin with, say, three transporter drivers, cos that’s an insult.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones