“I am hungry, suddenly, as if I haven’t eaten in weeks. I want borscht and pierogi and warm poppy-seed cake, and I feel this as a vast cavernous emptiness inside me, a yearning for warmth. But it isn’t painful at all. It feels like a promise.”
It is through the embellishment of absence that Tomasz Jedrowski’s debut novel, Swimming in the Dark, waves readers goodbye, leaving them in front of a form of emptiness that somewhat feels welcoming. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of 1980s Poland, Jedrowski’s work weaves a poignant tapestry of love, politics, and the relentless pursuit of freedom, and it is precisely from the concept of freedom that the novel originates. From the safe haven of New York Ludwik, a young man who has forsaken his homeland of Poland in search of freedom, meticulously chronicles his life experiences in the form of a heartfelt letter to his former lover, Janusz, pulling readers into a mesmerizing world of memories tinted by the stain of hidden emotions and long-kept secrets.
Through his narration, Ludwik, protagonist of this crusade for doomed love, escorts readers to his formative years in the Sixties Wrocław, a city still bearing the scars of wartimes and the perfect backdrop against which unspoken truths and enigmatic revelations surface as the true protagonists of the novel. It is in that specific context that Ludwik first comes to terms with his sexuality – “I had known him all my life”, he states, recalling his first infatuation for a boy at the tender age of nine – setting the stage for Ludwik’s exploration of his desires through the lenses of conservatory catholicism and the traumas that ensued from them.
Indeed, at the heart of Swimming in the Dark lies the deeply passionate yet ultimately doomed relationship between Ludwik and Janusz. Their paths serendipitously cross at a summer work camp in 1980, where Ludwik, an avid reader, lends Janusz an illicit copy of James Baldwin’s, Giovanni’s Room. The two young men quickly bond over the novel’s covert nature and depiction of homosexuality, which fundamentally mirrors the secrecy that shrouds their own love, serving as both a representation and as a catalyst for their intense romance. Having concluded their time at work camp, Ludwik and Janusz embark on a liberating camping trip, where their love blooms amidst the unspoiled beauty of nature, evoking raw and unbridled intimacy. Resembling another queer classic, Brokeback Mountain, Ludwik and Janusz’s passion sprouts against the backdrop of an idyllic, and almost surreal, natural environment in which nature itself seems to be able to shield the two young men from the cruelty of their time. Nonetheless, the return to the harsh realities of communist-controlled Warsaw unveils the fault lines in their relationship and the transient nature of their fateful encounter. Ludwik harbors dreams of the Western world’s freedom, while Janusz, with his practicality and charm, finds solace in navigating the corrupt political system.
Skillfully capturing the ideological clashes between Ludwik’s unwavering idealism and Janusz’s pragmatic outlook, Jedrowski underlines how the social tension of the environment inevitably bleeds into the fragile balance of their covert relationship. Being set in the 1980s Eastern Bloc Poland, the novel offers a distinctive perspective on the process of coming to terms with one’s identity and of the role that political undercurrents, societal pressures, and the ever-present surveillance state plays in the personal developments of the protagonists. All these elements add layers of complexity to the narrative, highlighting how Jedrowski’s prose is marked by its exquisite elegance and profound emotional depth, and elevating the narration far beyond the confines of a conventional love story. Indeed, in Swimming in the Dark, Jedrowski is capable of seamlessly weaving together the personal and the political, creating a narrative that is multidimensional and touches upon both the personal and the social aspects of love.
With painstaking care, Jedrowski unveils the vulnerabilities and well-guarded secrets of his characters, designing them as complex beings situated in an even more complex environment which, inevitably, creates the premises for departure. The revelations that gradually emerge throughout the narrative are heartrending, culminating with the final, and most impactful, revelation: that of Ludwik’s sexuality to the Polish authorities. Exposed by an ex-lover for who he truly is, he finds himself at a crossroad between life and death, love and loss, the past and the future, fundamentally having to choose between his freedom to love and the unwavering guilt of leaving all he knows.
A profound and attentive examination of young love, Tomasz Jedrowski’s Swimming in the Dark emerges as a compelling and captivating debut novel permeated by the unrestrained facets of love and growth. Seamlessly blending a heartfelt love story with a vivid portrayal of political turmoil in the 1980s Poland, the novel is overflowing with social commentary, establishing Jedrowski not only as a novelist but also as a connoisseur of the social implications of queer love. Indeed, the tumultuous relationship between Ludwik and Janusz, set against the backdrop of a repressive regime, creates a narrative that is both emotionally resonant and thematically profound. The elegance of Jedrowski’s prose, coupled with the heartrending revelations, firmly establishes this novel as a captivating and immersive exploration of love, politics, and the relentless pursuit of freedom.