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.
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.
It’s six o’clock in the morning. I awoke at five and had to finish this book. So many thoughts in my head. I was compelled to get up and write this review. For me this was more than just a story. It was my heritage.
Let me explain. My father was Polish. He left in 1939 at the age of sixteen having joined the army (lying about his age as many did) to fight for freedom. He was taken prisoner to Russia and after two years escaped and came to England where he joined the RAF Polish Squadron. He was unable to return for political reasons I won’t go into.
Whenever Ludwik in the book talks about Granny I think of my Granny Anna. She died in 1965. I never met her. My father said she never cut her hair. It was so long she could sit on it. Oh how I loved her! I wanted to be called Anna, be like Anna.
In 1978 it was safe for my father to return so I went with him and his second wife and her eldest daughter. One of his sisters had died a few hours before we arrived. We had to go to the funeral. She was laid out in an open coffin. She was tiny – her little feet sticking out of her black dress, a gold cross wrapped round her hands. I had never seen an open coffin in England. It’s not done.
We stayed with another sister. It was very rural and seemed ‘backwards’ to us. There were horse drawn carts along the road and chickens running free. We rarely spoke about politics or the Party. I realise now it was too dangerous.
We visited my aunt in a convent in Krakow where she had been a nun since she was fifteen. We slept on thin mattresses on an iron bed. She had nothing – just a bible and my Christmas cards in her bedside table drawer. I loved her too. These people were my Polish family.
Another time we went to Warsaw. It was wonderful! Like London! Little did I know what was lurking in dark corners, like Ludwik and his leaflets waiting to break free.
Reading this book brought it all back to me. Of course I cannot identify with Ludwik’s sexuality and his love for Janusz or his pain, but the sadness of the politics resonates with me. The book is so beautifully written – a love story tinged with the desperation of so many people’s plight. I remember having to queue for petrol and then being told we needed to buy vouchers first. Then we waited four hours for the petrol truck to arrive. My father’s extended family fed us everywhere we went, fed us well, even though they had so little.
The night before we left, we visited my father’s old school friend he hadn’t seen since before the war. They drank brandy till they laughed and cried. My father was sobbing. My step-sister said it was the brandy but I knew it was more. Family and friends – all lost, some never regained.
This morning I am Polish. I am there in 1978 but this time with a greater understanding. This book has given that to me. This is a story about love in all its forms, about passion and how politics can drive two people apart. Ludwik yearns for freedom, unable to ‘play the system’. Janusz is good at playing it. He uses it to rise in the ranks. Does he really believe in it? Did anyone? I doubt it, but it was better than being poor, while prices sky-rocketed and people queued for food they couldn’t afford. In the countryside they grew their own, made pickles, kept them in the cellar. Kept chickens. Picked mushrooms in the woods.
But for Janusz, pretending was not enough. He needed to be himself. My cousin’s husband ‘played the system’. For ten years. They had a lovely flat, a TV, a huge stereo. It was all a sham. But he was trusted. One day they just upped and left. Went to America and never looked back.
I want to thank the Pigeonhole, without whom I would never have discovered this wonderful novel and to my fellow Pigeons for making this such an enjoyable read. But most of all I want to thank the author for bringing back my heritage and my true self. I will be forever in his debt. Thank you Tomasz. And thank you also to my father Kazimierz Urbanowski 1923 – 2000.
About the Author
Tomasz Jedrowski is a graduate of Cambridge University and Université de Paris. He was born in Germany to Polish parents, and has lived in several countries, including Poland, and currently lives in Paris, France, where he works in high-fashion. He speaks five languages and writes in English. This is his first novel.