Culture & Society

Book Review: Why Imperfections In Literary Characters Make Perfect Sense

Michał Witkowski’s novel ‘Eleven-Inch’ explores the impoverished, and imperfect, lives of two queer teenagers from the post-communist East European countries, who work as escorts. It’s their flaws, as well as sad and sordid existence, that endear them to the readers

Eleven-Inch by Michal Witkowski
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Book: Eleven-Inch
Author: Michal Witkowski
Publisher: Seagull Books
Pages: 304, Price: Rs 2,015

Growing up reading books with a happy ending or an ending corresponding to the character’s action set a framework for my expectations from fiction. The literary device of poetic justice gradually began coming undone as I read more and more contemporary literature; the idea of redemption or fairness in stories remained unresolved. Fiction as a medium to talk about morality and virtue has been on the table every so often. It seems as though the authors are responsible to write a story that ends with something justifiable to all the plots in the book, bringing conflicts to a close. I have been thinking about this a lot for the past few years and more so while reading Michał Witkowski’s book ‘Eleven-Inch’, translated from Polish by W. Martin. 

‘Eleven-Inch’ is a story of two queer teenagers, from the post-communist East European countries, who are out there in the 1990s in Vienna, Munich and Zurich, working as escorts. At the heart of it, it’s an exploration of their impoverished lives; they have to make something out of themselves in cities with foreign languages, expensive lifestyles, annoying sugar daddies, pubs peppered with drugs and everything that’s not for them. For one of the teens, his eleven-inch proves as an asset in the market of queens and grandpas, but for the gender-fluid Milan, who loves desserts and make-up and barely has a cock, or a face, or a body that attracts rich customers, life is unbelievably difficult. 

‘And somehow it turned out that all over the world except Switzerland and our bed, there was a war going on, there were bombings, there were riots. Watching news about the rest of the world had a very soothing effect on the Swiss. Everywhere poverty, everywhere someone’s home is being demolished, but here they renovate their houses and meticulously replace the water remains every five years before they can think of bursting.’

Even though I have never been to these cities, I could imagine Christmas in Vienna, buildings and Oktoberfest in Munich, chocolates, ice-creams and coffee in Zurich. Besides the loud, neon-lit gay ‘whore-houses’ of these cities, the author continuously placed the aesthetic appeal of these places that makes them the ideal-typical picture of the West to juxtapose the promises capitalism offers. The cities were harsh, brutal and unfair to these young migrants who had left their homes in search for a better life that West Europe could gift them. But did it? Are cities fair? Is capitalism really interested in a politics of fairness or justice? These are questions that will definitely interest the reader as they make their way through the lives of these young East European sex workers. 

There is a charm in the author’s style of writing and the sharp use of wit and humour spreads over the whole story as we move between kinky sex scenes, violent encounters, and the remorseful passages of self-abasement. These scenes are not the ones that have a structured beginning, middle and an end. Almost none of the sex scenes are written with the usual foreplay-action-climax-wind down. They are spread out like sprinkles of salt all over the book where violence, passion, orgasm merge into something refreshing and new. There is life breathed into every page, for which the credit also goes to the translator. The very structure of the novel exudes the unjust, unpleasantness and the unfairness of life. Its descriptive, explicit and brutal passages mock our expectation of poetic justice in our lives that never comes through.

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‘Look, you little slut, stop with the pouting and sighing. The guy didn’t come here for a grumpy little princess, he came to have a good time with a young professional escort, someone who exudes positive energy and a lot else besides, so put on your happy face and go over to him.’

The author has dealt with a host of issues ranging from sexuality, regional political differences, violence, class, to race in a nuanced manner that never for once felt feigned or all-over-the-place. He is not talking about them or grieving like one would expect from Tolstoy’s protagonist, Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov in ‘Resurrection’. Here, the author is engaged in an intense exploration of what it is to be alive and lives through these intersections, continuously haunting you, scaring you and making these destitute queers feel like they are a part of the wider sociality. It reminded me of something Ottessa Moshfegh had said in an interview, when asked about politics and fiction. She said, “I don’t feel that my work is something I want to use to preach moral righteousness, but rather explore the problem of being a human in a world where it’s very difficult to be one.” These words kept coming back to me as I made my way through Witkowski’s novel. There is no morality or lesson he is trying to inculcate through his novels. For the author, his task, at hand, lies in the careful unmasking of what it is to be a human being with all the imperfections at play. 

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Do not go into the novel expecting some form of justice or fairness because that’s not what the author is concerned about. He is simply interested in writing about the story of two destitute queers who are having fun. They make money, have sex — as well as lots of chocolates, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol — and, at the same time, get beaten up, left unpaid, hungry, homeless and poor. That is their life; it’s not a saga of justice that will make all their years culminate at a point. I feel this is exactly how we need to approach fiction. Writers like Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Elena Ferrante, Raven Leilani, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld or Eliza Clark deal with characters that are not ideal or virtuous; instead, they are extremely flawed and don’t get poetic justice in their lives. They deserve to be read and understood in their sad, sordid ways of existence and not as those whose lives are transformed in the last few pages, bringing a satisfying resolve to the story. 

(Rahul Singh is currently a postgraduate student (Sociology) at Presidency University, Kolkata)
 

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