In the early nineties of the last century, practically anyone who travelled from Poland to the West experienced something like a journey of initiation – an initiation that involved not so much getting to know the life-ways of the welfare state and its innovations in technology and personal hygiene, as becoming aware of one’s own more or less inferior place in the world. It is well known that nothing excites people so much as comparing their own status with that of others – and in this case, the comparison proved devastating: People who were well off in the East found themselves barely making do in the West, while those of middling means basically had nothing at all, their monthly salaries being just enough to cover three candy bars and a can of Fanta at a German gas station. “Yes, I have no money; neither have you. Nor has he... So... we have just enough, just exactly enough to start quite a big factory” – as the Nobel Prize laureate Władysław Reymont wrote in The Promised Land, his renowned 1899 novel that described the blossoming of capitalism in the Polish lands. While the teenaged Polish, Slovak, and Czech protagonists of Michał Witkowski’s novel Fynf und cwancyś have no plans to starts a factory, they do have another idea for making money. With their own young bodies serving as capital, they travel to the West to sell themselves, for cash, to ageing admirers of the graces of youth. In a certain sense the Germany, Austria, and Switzerland of Witkowski’s novel is a kind promised land, especially when you can count on such irrefutable arguments as the novel’s narrator does: The “fynf und cwancyś” of the title – a calque of the German “fünfundzwanzig”, i.e. twenty-five – refers to the impressive size of his member, in centimetres.
The idea of describing the meeting of West and East from the perspective of a male prostitute possesses extraordinary metaphoric potential. In the collective memory of East European societies, the 1990s were a time of gluttony, of getting drunk on the West – a bender after which, like after any other bender, the inevitable hangover set in. In this case it was the bitter realization that we had been bought for a handful of beads and a few meters of percale. Witkowski, however, is not interested in big ideas; what interests him are people: the languages they speak, the way they look, their behaviour and eccentricities, how they respond to stress, their desires and weaknesses. In a certain sense, Fynf und cwancyś can be considered an anthropological novel, perhaps even an ethnographic one.
Witkowski artfully cloaks such literary attentiveness behind his twin masks of gossipmonger and humourist, and he has taken this approach consistently ever since his high-profile debut, the 2004 novel Lubiewo (published as Lovetown by Portobello Books). This was one of the most important (and funniest) books written in Poland after 1989, an exploration of the secret customs of the gay underground in Communist Poland. Witkowski’s career – it is hard to pigeonhole him as an LGBTQ writer, because he tends to ironize the movement – has had its ups and downs, but Fynf und cwancyś unquestionably represents a return to what he has always done best: providing readers with his intelligent observations of the world framed by his own sarcastic, often perversely amoral commentary.
The successive love conquests and defeats of the protagonists – Milan, from the Slovak capital Bratislava, and Fynfundcfancyś, from the Polish village Konin – although they play out in the public toilets, train stations, and trashy dives where young Stricher (male prostitutes) and their well-heeled clients hang out, are narrated with the aplomb of an absurd picaresque novel. Somewhere in the background Witkowski spins another story as well, about the past and future of Europe, about the collision of excitement and ennui, about the cold, sterile, narcissistic loneliness at the heart of prosperity, whether Austrian or Swiss. The book contains not a trace of the pornographic, although sex is talked about on practically every page – and this is because Witkowski exaggerates the erotic and freights it with the grotesque, whether he is describing the German obsession with order and cleanliness or the shame and embarrassment-inducing perversions of old men who were never cuddled as children. Fynf und cfancyś is, in fact, a comedy, a highly indecent one. But this indecency is born of a deep understanding of the ambivalence that happens when people who have nothing encounter those who have it all.