Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2021

Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski

Swimming in the Dark is a stunning debut for author Tomasz Jedrowski.  It’s a coming-of-age story in more ways than one. This is the blurb:

Set in early 1980s Poland against the violent decline of communism, a tender and passionate story of first love between two young men who eventually find themselves on opposite sides of the political divide—a stunningly poetic and heartrending literary debut for fans of Andre Aciman, Garth Greenwell, and Alan Hollinghurst.

When university student Ludwik meets Janusz at a summer agricultural camp, he is fascinated yet wary of this handsome, carefree stranger. But a chance meeting by the river soon becomes an intense, exhilarating, and all-consuming affair. After their camp duties are fulfilled, the pair spend a dreamlike few weeks camping in the countryside, bonding over an illicit copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Inhabiting a beautiful natural world removed from society and its constraints, Ludwik and Janusz fall deeply in love. But in their repressive communist and Catholic society, the passion they share is utterly unthinkable.

Once they return to Warsaw, the charismatic Janusz quickly rises in the political ranks of the party and is rewarded with a highly-coveted position in the ministry. Ludwik is drawn toward impulsive acts of protest, unable to ignore rising food prices and the stark economic disparity around them. Their secret love and personal and political differences slowly begin to tear them apart as both men struggle to survive in a regime on the brink of collapse.

Shifting from the intoxication of first love to the quiet melancholy of growing up and growing apart, Swimming in the Dark is a potent blend of romance, post-war politics, intrigue, and history. Lyrical and sensual, immersive and intense, Tomasz Jedrowski has crafted an indelible and thought-provoking literary debut that explores freedom and love in all its incarnations.

For Ludwik, negotiating the discovery of his sexuality in the 1980s, it’s not just hesitancy about who to reveal himself to, and the when and how; it’s that Poland under the Soviet yoke confers power to those with ‘connections’ and not only denies the most basic of needs to its ordinary people, but also exploits shame and fear about ‘deviancy’ to blackmail its informers.  As a boy Ludwik had listened to illegal radio broadcasts with his mother and grandmother — without really understanding what they were about except that they were clandestine because they were from the West.  It is not until his relationship with Janusz deepens (that name reminding the reader of Janus the two-faced god) that Ludwik becomes aware of the corruption of his society and the abandonment of its socialist ideals.  He has a kindly landlady called Pan Kolecka who has fond memories of freedom to travel beyond pre-war Poland and whose sole pleasure now is to bake, but as the economy collapses she has to queue for days in order to get basic foodstuffs. Janusz OTOH has friends with connections who live in luxury, symbolised by expensive German cars, designer clothes from the West, gourmet foodstuffs and the latest in popular music.  Ludwik sees a washing machine for the first time in his life and feels a stab of anger for Pan Kolecka who has done her laundry by hand all her life.  She tells him that she is queueing for a possibility, queueing for something, maybe queueing for nothing but she has hope that even the longest queue dissolves eventually. Just how unrealistic this is becomes clear when she becomes gravely ill and cannot even get a medical appointment, much less the medications to save her life.

Ludwik dreams of freedom, and with Giovanni’s Room as the (clandestine) catalyst, he is hopeful that he can get funding for a doctorate to study the author James Baldwin because the authorities will approve of any critique of American, including  racism.  Ludwik’s dreams and reality collide when he realises that Janusz is willing to compromise all that matters in order to get ahead…

Jedrowski convincingly captures the doubts and anxiety of young love as Ludwik idealises his loved one in a forested Eden, contrasted with the grubby decay of the city and its baroque past for the portrayal of disillusionment and melancholy as Janusz reveals his true self.  I have been dipping into Growing Up Queer in Australia (edited by Benjamin Law) and this uncertainty in the adolescent years is a common theme, as it is for all young people, but even in liberal societies, it’s a life journey made more complicated by sexuality that’s different to the ‘norm’.

Swimming in the Dark is a thoughtful book. It doesn’t just shine a light on the contradictions of communism, it shows that societies that tolerate corruption and indifference to the common good, must be challenged.  Solidarity is beginning to emerge in the timeline of this novel but there are risks in supporting it.  This story made me wonder yet again about how much the West has benefited from migration of the disaffected and whether things would be any better in evil regimes if we had better ways of supporting change from within.  OTOH Western interference has so often been a catalyst for more misery so perhaps the impetus for change has to come from the people themselves…

Author: Tomasz Jedrowski
Title: Swimming in the Dark
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2021, first published 2020
ISBN: 9781526604989, PBK., 229 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia


Responses

  1. This sounds so tempting! I’m trying to rein in my book buying (haha) but you’ve got me really wavering with this Lisa :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We so often give in to the itch to interfere, but it generally does more harm than good, just look at the Arab Spring. But maybe Kosovo – I’m not well enough informed.
    As Orwell warned, the pigs always become ‘more equal’ in Communist societies. He was also clear that Anarchist societies will be as quickly squashed by their Red allies as by their Capitalist enemies, so perhaps the Scandanavian/mixed economy route is the only safe one. Which is a long way off topic I know, but I was thinking more about the landlady than the protagonist.

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    • Yes I thought of the Arab Spring too. The West got that badly wrong, Kosovo I’m not so sure either…it’s interesting that we lived through these events via the media but we don’t know the follow-up analysis. Maybe they do in Europe and it’s case of our blinkered media?
      Orwell was only half right. The ‘pigs’ are more equal in democracies too.
      Besides the landlady there’s a grandmother too, who stands to be victimised if anyone in her family breaks the rules. The author only hints at this, but Children of the Arbat shows how it happened. That’s a book well worth reading if you can get hold of it. Also a TV series called The Weissensee Saga about East Germany in transition is excellent.

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  3. I read this last year and really liked it as well.

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    • Ah, yes, I was trying to remember where else I’d seen a review!
      How are you today? Any better?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, all cleared up. The medication was very effective, we caught it early. How are you though?

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        • getting by:)

          Liked by 1 person

          • My son just broke his wrist playing football. Happened yesterday but we only went to the hospital today because he was convinced it was only a sprain – wishful thinking as now with a cast he can’t play for several weeks, his worst nightmare.

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            • Oh dear, he has my sympathy. You’re having a run of bad luck…

              Liked by 1 person


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