Lovetown

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(346)

Michal Witkowski, Portobello Books, £12.99

Lovetown describes the changing lives of gay men in Poland over the last 30 years. However, most of the people we meet in these pages are not gay men in the Western European sense. Patricia and Lucretia are queens in the 1980s, who use women's names and refer to each other as "she". They seek out sex not with each other (which counts as "lesbianism") but with rough straight men who they find in parks and public toilets.

There is no romance here, or even sexual reciprocation. Instead the queens suffer the constant threat of homophobic violence and the risk of HIV infection. There is a fragile kind of solidarity among them: they come together to attend each other's funerals. If they are outcasts, confined mostly to dead-end jobs, they are not rebels. They adore the occupying Soviet army and its young troops, horny and far from home, who will have sex with them.

Then the Soviet empire falls and the grim little world they have made for themselves disappears. New ideas about sexuality arrive from Western Europe. They are expected to be modern, masculine gay men instead of queens, to call each other "he", visit the gym and use internet chat rooms. Middle class activists preach to them about the joys of living as respectable couples.

They are excluded from this new world: they don't have the money, are heading for 50 and have put on some weight. They become nostalgic - in a way that will be familiar from the film Good Bye Lenin! - for the world of Communism, with its Russian soldiers and state-sponsored caravan holidays. Back then they could hope to achieve something, even if it was only being the most notorious queen in Wroclaw. Now they have nothing.

Michal Witkowski's book is not a novel but a series of pieces describing different lives. It makes clear that concepts of sexuality vary between societies, so that simply importing Western European concepts of sexual liberation isn't necessarily the way forward elsewhere in the world.

It also reflects the general disappointment in Eastern Europe with what the free market has meant in practice. The most memorable piece describes Di, who has come aged 16 from the poverty of Slovakia to the bright lights of Vienna, only to end up a homeless, drug-addled rent boy.

Real liberation will mean people like Patricia, Lucretia and Di taking part in new struggles and developing their own ideas of how to fight for freedom. That doesn't seem on the agenda yet. Meanwhile, Lovetown is a bleak testament to their lives.