This debut is as well-crafted an LGBT+ bildungsroman as you’ll find anywhere. Set in 1980s Poland, the protagonist, Ludwik’s sexual awakening is set against the decline of the socialist state and the discontent that gave rise to the trade union Solidarity. Jedrowski skilfully manoeuvres Ludwik into a position in which his sexual, personal and moral freedoms are pitted against the machine of the state, and his love affair with the venal Janusz is threatened by the realities of life under a totalitarian regime.
It’s a moving story, adeptly told, and, interestingly, is written in English by the German-Polish, partly English-educated, French resident Jedrowski. Yet for me it fell short. I found everything very on the nose – from the central image of Janusz teaching Ludwik to swim, and in the process teaching him about his sexuality, to the final betrayal, which Ludwik witnesses through a drug-induced hazed. The book’s scenes and incidents are all apposite: the story of Ludwik’s suffering landlady, unable to get the right medicine until Janusz steps in and pulls the right strings, is heartbreaking and illustrates perfectly Ludwik’s moral dilemma. Yet it is, perhaps, too perfect an image.
For me Swimming in the Dark lacks nuance and sophistication. And this may be because I’m the person I am: a gay man who himself came out just a few years after Ludwik. This felt very much like a book I and my gay friends would have read thirty years ago – just a few years after the era in which it is set. It is a book that would have spoken to us about our own experiences, and contrasted them with those of gay men living under communism; a book we would have read for the political lessons it teaches, rather than for the literary experience it provides. So, despite being written and published now, it feels to me very much like a book from the period in which it is set. Perhaps that is not the book’s issue but my own; perhaps I’m looking for a different literary experience from the one I was seeking in 1990 and the one this book offers. Perhaps my need for coming-out stories has declined.
Editing The Queer Riveter last year, I discovered a host of new LGBT+ literature from across Europe, work that examines the contemporary queer experience from a variety of perspectives. Swimming in the Dark is yet another angle, but tells a tale from a world that has now disappeared. It’s a valuable story, beautifully executed, and would probably have satisfied me in 1990, but now I’m left wanting something more.
Reviewed by West Camel
SWIMMING IN THE DARK
Written by Tomasz Jedrowski
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing (2020)
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now. www.westcamel.net.
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