Title: Swimming in the Dark
Author: Tomasz Jedrowski
Pub Date: April 28th, 2020
My Rating: ★★★★☆
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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.
Swimming in the Dark is a beautifully sad love story. The kind I love the most. What makes this book special for me is the author – it’s a book written in English, for British and American market, by a Pole brought up in Germany, who lived in Poland but now resides in France. Even more special, and what distinguishes this book is the subject – gay love in communist Poland.
The book is written as a letter, a story told by Ludwik about his experience as a young boy exploring his sexuality and then the time spend with Janusz. Ludwik met Janusz on a mandatory agriculture camp. He was fascinated by the handsome, carefree young man. Seemingly one-sided interest, evolved into a shy meetings by the river, and then a love affair among idyllic Polish countryside.
The political regime plays a big part of the story. Ludwik and Janusz’s love cannot blossom in a repressive communist and Catholic society. They need to hide their true self. Officially homosexuality in Poland was not considered a crime, so the fear was not of a criminal prosecution. Homosexuality was considered as a disease, perversion that just cannot exist in a polish society. No openly gay man could achieve anything in a communist society, they will be oppressed, removed, they will be denied any privileges.
Swimming in the Dark is a tender, moving story of love and loss. It will break your heart. What will be even harder, is to realize that the live of gays and lesbians in Poland is not that much better than before, and in current political climate it can get even worse.