Politics and intimacy collide constantly in Tomasz Jedrowski’s enthralling debut, which locates Ludwik and Janusz’s search for sexual and emotional liberty against a wider backdrop of a country struggling to define its own identity. On the brink of insolvency and facing rocketing inflation and mass demonstrations, Poland will, the following year, declare martial law. The presence of the Party – largely ignored by the lovers during their country idyll, which forms the novel’s core – exerts itself on their lives as soon as they return to Warsaw. Ludwik, the dreamy idealist, drifts for a while before deciding to apply for a doctorate on James Baldwin, refusing to be a part of the political system; Janusz, more practical and grounded, almost immediately gets a job in the censorship bureau, much to Ludwik’s dismay. Their heated discussions pit collective social responsibility against the freedom of individual expression; and as each of them argues his corner, the novel makes it clear that their fate as lovers is inextricably linked to the decisions of the Party.
This book radiates sensuality (‘I could hear you breathe, like a gentle crashing of waves’), humour (a doctor’s surgery is located ‘at the junction of Freedom and Lenin’) and human truths (‘you looked like a different person, and this both scared and excited me’). Jealousy, in particular, is well handled: ‘She threw herself around your neck, as if that’s what it was there for.’ Swimming in the Dark is sensual and immersive, and Ludwik’s sentimental education is so well described that the reader is left wanting more. You won’t want to miss it.
Jedrowski’s writing is elegant and compelling, and the revelations when they come are heartbreaking. I wallowed in all this book’s melancholy beauty, and will now keep it on my shelves alongside novels by Alan Hollinghurst, Edmund White and other classics in the gay canon.