Swimming in the Dark
Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski
Swimming in the Dark is Tomasz Jedrowski’s first novel, about a forbidden love in communist Poland. It is narrated by Ludwik, who explains to his former lover Janusz why he migrated to the west.
Their love is threatened not only by the social taboo of a gay relationship, but the possibility that it might eventually compromise them. In a corrupt society, being good is not enough; success is largely a matter of whom you know, and always seems to come at the expense of other people.
Ludwik believes there is no redeeming the communist regime. He sympathises with the protests that are beginning to rock Poland, and is nearly arrested for handing out their flyers. Janusz, on the other hand, wants to work within the regime. He takes a job as a censor and begins an ambiguous friendship with a woman with very deep connections. He is willing to overlook the regime’s crimes—even to be complicit in them—so long as he gets the security which enables him to live his secret life with Ludwik.
At one point, dismissing rumours about food shortages, Ludwik’s friend Karolina quips that “the economy has been collapsing ever since we were born.” (36). Unlike we in the west, raised on never-ending expectations of economic growth, those in the east have lived through true scarcity. In Poland, this apparently means turning rotting beetroots at the bottom of your pantry into infinite varieties of soups and desserts. The characters in this book are struggling, but they never wallow in their poverty. They still find joy in simple things, like going swimming with friends, camping in the woods, or eating borscht with their grandmas.
Ludwik remembers all of this with a good deal of nostalgia. The writing doesn’t always pull away from overjuiced emotions, though. It occasionally gets silly, as when Jedrowski describes the firm backsides of handsome young men: “Your ass was powerful, like two great smooth rocks sculpted by the sea.” (43) Maybe I’m just immature, but English has never struck me as a language with a particularly graceful erotic register.
There are plenty of good sentences between the awkward, though. Jedrowski can pull out a few simple, almost Nabokovian comparisons to add colour to a scene: when a set of gas pipes turn on, they make noises as though there is a Dwarf clanking around in them; when Karolina, who dresses a bit trashily, puts on too much make-up, her eyelashes are compared to thick black spider legs.
Swimming in the Dark could easily have been twice the length. As it stands, characters tend to turn up only when they’re needed to advance the plot. Thus, an elderly lady is introduced and then forced to work until she has a medical emergency—just to demonstrate how far it is possible to fall into this society. Karolina is absent for most of the book, reappearing towards the end because Ludwik needs someone to talk to. And Ludwik is apparently working on a PhD thesis about racism in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, but he only seems to make progress when the reader is not looking.
Swimming in the Dark remains hugely compelling because it has a powerful sense of drama that tugs you along. Unlike Janusz, Ludwik refuses to play the game. But then, because he doesn’t play the game, he doesn’t have the connections, and his PhD proposal sinks. As we catch glimpses of Janusz out partying with his new, well-connected friends, we begin to wonder: is he really doing this for Ludwik? Or for himself?
When Ludwik finally makes plans to escape to the west, on the pre-text of visiting family, the authorities blackmail him: they know his secret. They will grant him his visa if he rats out other homosexuals (i.e. Janusz). Will he? Or won’t he? The story twists Ludwik into a situation where, no matter what way he turns, no matter his intentions, he is damned. Swimming in the Dark builds up that real sense of despair under communism. We attend the brief moments of hope in Ludwik’s life, small occasions which seem like they might, together, be able to outshine the macihne—only for it to crush him back to reality.