Sex and politics don't mix in this melancholy tale of gay love in Communist Poland.
It's 1980, Poland. The country is fracturing under corrupt Communist rule. Protest movements are gaining ground, even as they are brutally put down. Amidst this political turmoil, eighteen-year-old Ludwik attends an agricultural camp and is soon besotted with Janusz. The two youths go hiking by some idyllic lakes and enjoy the waters, starting a secret affair. While homosexuality is not illegal in Poland at the time, it is still a fast route to social ostracism and shame. For Ludwik, this is a major concern, as he is haunted by an early episode in his life when he made advances to a boy he liked, but was found out and humiliated.
The affair between the two boys is passionate, almost idyllic, but as they get to know each other better, cracks start to appear. Ludwik is critical of the Communist regime and believes the system can be overcome. It's better to live the truth than a lie. Janusz has different ideas. He's about to start work for the regime and has a more pragmatic view. He prefers to work every advantage you can and get ahead. Why suffer? Accordingly, he flirts with Hania, the daughter of a party official. His relationship with Hania means he can live the good life and get special requests fast-tracked. When Ludwik needs some intervention to get a doctoral thesis study approved, Janusz suggests asking Hania. Faced with such an agonising choice, one that also risks his relationship with Janusz, Ludwik finds there is no easy way out.
Swimming in the Dark is the debut novel from Tomasz Jedrowski, a German-born Polish author now living in France. It's written in a simple, elegant style that is engaging and evocative. The plot, one that travels from innocence to experience, is heartbreakingly believable.
A tragic tale that highlights a time when gay lives were filled with shame, secrets and persecution, with an interesting historical backdrop of Communist Poland.
Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski. Published by Bloomsbury. $29.99
Staff review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books