Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski — book review

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“It’s best to start with the beginning—or at least what feels like it. I realise now that we never much talked about our pasts. Maybe it would changed something if we had, maybe we would have understood each other better and everything would have been different. Who can say?”

Swimming in the Dark is a strikingly elegiac novel. The story, in its broadest terms, explores a young man’s identity and sexuality under Communist Poland.
In December 13th 1981 martial law is declared in the Socialist Republic of Poland. Ludwik Glowacki, a young Polish man now living in America, hears of this on the news. This Western ‘acknowledgment’ of his home country’s political unrest triggers a recollection of his past. Rather than reiterating his whole childhood, Ludwik lingers on some of his more meaningful experiences: starting at age nine, when he became infatuated with a Jewish boy, to his longer-lasting relationship to Janusz, a young man he meets while working on an agricultural camp.
Throughout the narrative Ludwik addresses Janusz in the second-person (which will probably elicit comparisons to Call Me By Your Name), giving his reminisce the impression of being an unwritten letter of sorts.

“You listened, really listened, gentle eyes taking me in without judgment, making me feel more heard than I knew I could be.”

But this is only partly a love story. Ludwik’s examination of his time in Poland will make you feel uneasy. We read of Ludwik’s early struggle to reconcile himself with his sexuality, of his self-discovery (aided by a copy of Giovanni’s Room), of his attempts to create a future in a growingly alienating society, and of the way Poland’s tumultuous political and economical landscape affect him and those around him.

“To my own surprise, I was unable to accept the shame he wanted me to feel. It was too familiar to be imposed: I had produced it myself for such a long time that, right then, I found I had no space left for it any more.”

Ludwik’s daily life is permeated by an undercurrent of fear one that forces him into secrecy. Yet as Ludwik struggles to maintain his identity in an increasingly watchful city, he finds himself not only holding but voicing dissident opinions. Because of this, his relationship with Janusz, who is much more complacent, becomes strained.

“Selfish. Growing into yourself is nothing but that.”

Jedrowski’s writing is by turns allusive and explicit. Ludwik’s intimate narration is one that might make readers feel almost uncomfortable, as if we were encroaching upon his privacy. Yet, this intimacy also allows us to experience some of Ludwik’s emotions, to understand the depth of his feelings for Janusz, his apprehension and guilt for having moved away from his grandmother, his growing sense of dislocation.

“I even attempt a smile. But I sense that either way my foreignness somehow absolves me from their judgment. To them, it must explain my strangeness completely.”

Jedrowski renders in an almost painful clarity what it means to live in a country in turmoil, a country whose government and (collapsing) economy worsen its citizens quality of life.
Against this bleak backdrop, Jedrowski’s prose seems almost startlingly luminous. He emphasises the more striking nuances of the English language, and his word choices perfectly lend themselves to conveying the beauty and anguish in Ludwik’s life.

“I was transported into a vision of my life that made me so dizzy my head began to spin. Shame, heavy and alive, had materialised, built from buried fears and desires.”

Jedrowski’s writing also showcases a propensity for metaphors: “‘Perverts’ — the word falling from her lips like a two-limbed snake, dangerous and exciting”. At times these metaphors could be beautiful, and often brought certain moments or images from Ludwik’s memory into the foreground, so that certain scenes are rendered in almost snapshot clarity. In other instances these seemed to accentuate Ludwik’s impression or feelings towards someone or something.

“My life was a tiny narrow corridor with no doors leading of it, a tunnel so narrow it bruised my elbows, with only one way to go. That or the void, I told myself. That or leave.”

Certain metaphors however stood out for the wrong reason, seeming over-written, silly, a bit too impressionistic, and made me wonder whether Jedrowski had an aversion for calling things what they are (for instance: “Tears started to slide down my cheeks like melted butter” / “Warm cave of his mouth” / “your ass was powerful, like two great smooth rocks sculpted by the sea” / “breasts like overripe fruit”).
Still, Jedrowski is a clearly skilled writer. The imagery he creates make his narrative into an almost sensory experience. His prose is acutely lyrical, and there were many instance in which I became lost in his language, in his rich, if occasionally high-flow, expression, and in his arresting juxtapositions.
Jedrowski’s flair for metaphors brought to mind authors such as André Aciman and Ocean Vuong, while the ambivalent tone that shapes much of Ludwik’s retrospective narrative reminded me of L’Arminuta and Lie With Me.
In spite of his novel’s tragic undertones, Jedrowski’s prose remains luminous, and there are some rare moments of true beauty in Ludwik’s deeply personal tale. Still, a sense of disquiet seemed ever present. Perhaps Ludwik’s hindsight distorts some of his memory, turning blissfully happy moments into bittersweet memories.

“One day your country is yours, and the next it isn’t.”

Living in a country that through its laws and policies imposed uniformity on its subjects, Ludwik not only does he hold onto his individuality but he tries to overcome the shame and guilt that seem irrevocably ingrained in him. Ludwik’s psychological turmoil is temporarily alleviated after he comes across an illicit copy of Giovanni’s Room. He begins to draw parallels between himself and its protagonist, and soon he fears that he too will behave in a cowardly way. I too became increasingly afraid for him, especially as he is repeatedly forced into morally distressing situations. Yet, to go against the tide is no easy feat, and there were many challenging occasions where Ludwik has to fight not to stray from his values.

“But like stones thrown into the sky with all one’s might, pieces of that night – the boys and the men who wanted them, the flirtation, the codes of seduction I could only guess at – returned to me with even greater intensity than I had lived. The law of gravity applies to memories too.”

Ludwik’s relationship to Janusz is rendered with poignancy. There are moments of vulnerability, of frailty, of emotional and physical abandon, of weariness, and of grief. Due to the secret nature of their relationship Ludwik seems to be perpetually longing for Janusz. However, Ludwik’s anxiety for his/their future, Janusz’s job and acquaintances, and their contrasting political views, create conflict between them.

“I wondered about your role in all this, what kind of pact you’ve made with yourself. Because we all make one, even the best of us. And it’s rarely immaculate. No matter how hard we try.”

This novel is a deeply intratextual work. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room appears throughout the narrative, at times it alleviates Ludwik’s despair, in other occasions it appears to him almost as a cautionary tale. Baldwin’s novel allows him to read from a perspective he can understand.

“I was paralysed by possibility, caught between the vertigo of fulfillment and the abyss of uncertainty.”

In navigating his past Ludwik demonstrates incredible self-awareness. He acknowledges early on that his recollection of his past is imperfect and possibly biased. Retrospective blurs his memories. Yet, its is his present knowledge that allows him to ‘dig’ deeper, to discern his own motivations and feelings as well as those of others. In fact, as Ludwik ruminates his way through his past, he seems also to be trying to understand or question some of his choices.

“How does one bond with another child, as a child? Maybe it’s simply through common interest. Or maybe it’s something that lies deeper, for which everything you say and do is an unwitting code. ”

Swimming in the Dark presents its readers with an examination of a young love that is filled with passion, misery, contrition, and jealousy. Simultaneously graceful and unrestrained, this novel is brimming with sensitive and penetrating observations about youth, love (of being gay in a society that deems same-sex love unacceptable), family, and freedom. Written in a fluid prose Swimming in the Dark tells a moving story one that struck me for its piercing realism, for its painful subject matter, and for its believable and compelling characters.

“It sounded like an appeal, a right violated and invoked. My hand on the door handle, my back to you, heart pulsing in my temples. I could sense the word throbbing in the air. My name, claiming me. It wrapped its fingers around my shoulders and tried to hold me back.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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