The work of sex: Michal Witkowski's 'Eleven-Inch' addresses sex as survival

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday March 1, 2022
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author Michal Witkowski
author Michal Witkowski

In an alternative, fair world in which every city had a fully stocked, brick-and-mortar gay bookstore, in the Literary Gay Fiction section these days there would be an entire subsection on Eastern European Rent Persons. But even in a decently stocked Barnes & Noble, the practiced gay reader strolling the aisles might find a finger instinctively lifting a book called Eleven-Inch off the shelf. We'd all get the reference: the Moby-Dick of dicks.

Eleven-Inch is Polish novelist Michal Witkowski's ninth book, bracingly rendered by his regular translator W. Martin and recently published in English by Seagull Books as part of its Pride List: "an eclectic collection of books of queer stories, biographies, histories, thoughts, ideas, experiences and explorations ... celebrat[ing] the great diversity of LGBTQ+ lives across countries, languages, centuries, and identities."

My Polish is rusty but I want to think that its original title, Fynf und Cfancyf, is Polish for 15, as in centimeters.

Witkowski wrote the first explicitly gay novel published in Poland, and his writing, not exclusively gay in content, has won a battery of awards in Europe. If Wikipedia is to be believed, his preferred identification is as "homosexual" rather than gay or queer. If he keeps writing like this, I'm fine if he wants to identify as a platypus.

Eleven-Inch is the picaresque chronicle of two teenagers on the lam from their politically oppressive and economically depressed homelands in Eastern Europe. You could call them prostitutes or worse, whores, but then you'd be missing what is arguably Witkowski's central point: they are survivors. Sex work is work.

If this was smut or even pornographically inclined, we'd get the scoop on every one of those inches, but like Melville's whopper, it's the more impressive and scary by just being memorably named. These are not boys who get what they've got coming any more than their wealthy scores deserve the revenge sex (and usually larceny) they get at the hands and other more fungible organs of the boys.

Nor is Eleven-Inch a novel marred by moralism, even of the inverted kind. It's frank, yes, but neither prurient nor puritanical. In the operatic world of sex literature, it's verismo, and if anything all too lifelike much of the time. The writing is unflaggingly clever, often funny, and occasionally savagely sad.

But like its subjects here, it's unaccountably untiring. It's not to say that I didn't love every paragraph of this book to add that I had to put it down at almost every one of its narrative breaks to wipe my eyes, the tears by no means always those of laughter.

The principals are Milan (you can be sure the accent falls on the first syllable of that name) from Slovakia and Michal from Poland, the latter the super-endowed and not meant to be confused with the similarly named author unless it is. Milan is addressed as Dianka, a deliberate, terrible riff on Princess Diana, and Michal is, well, by now you know, further self-identified to Dianka as "your big mascot."

Michal is as much swank and swagger as schwanz (German for dick), and his mission in life other than to penetrate and prosper is to help poor (in every sense) and anti-glamorous Dianka up her game as they weave their unfamiliar way through the hyper-affluent European Libel Belt of Munich, Vienna, and — the promised land — Zurich.

This is hard for Dianka because, Witkowski writes, "Dianka sometimes feels like she's her own baggage, her own rucksack. Her body bothers her — it's an obstacle, a problem to be solved. If only there were some way to stash herself away in a train-station locker like her own extra bag."

At its most quotable, the writing is shockingly original. With her Munich trick, whom she calls Trashmaster, "who didn't even have a solid command of German, speaking instead in a misshapen Bavarian ... Dianka usually spoke a variant of broken English. But they understood each other perfectly, chattering in pheromone."

Michal spots a potential john thus: "he was standing like an orphan in the middle of the street, leaning forward, then backward, as if he were sleeping while standing."

This is Mario Ludwig, who materially has everything literally twice over and can drink like ten regular Germans. At the end of their hair-raising adventure, Michal deadpans, "I can tell you: Mario Ludwig died the death of a vagrant under a bridge."

No one in this indefatigable novel has coming what he deserves. In a sordid post-Soviet world both unlike its American counterpart and a dead ringer for it, things happen and you move on. But never is the reader indifferent to any of the characters.

Still, there's no escaping the likelihood that Witkowski perfectly gauges his intended audience: readers unimpressed by the monied classes but with a sweet tooth for money "boys," not because the whores are having more fun but because on either side of the Iron Curtain —the old one or the new— all of us could find ourselves in their number, or longing to be, any day that fate twists the knife just right.

Eleven-Inch, by Michal Witkowski, translated from the Polish by W. Martin, Seagull Books. $24.50

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