Tomasz Jedrowski’s debut novel arrived this month with a certain amount of buzz. It was the subject of a hotly contested publishing auction in England and secured a six-figure sum in the US. Added to that, the author is Polish and gay, living in Paris and writing in English; a background story which is enough to arouse the curiosity of readers on the lookout for distinctive new voices.
Jedrowski’s narrator is Ludwik, a man in his early twenties who has fled his native Poland to live in New York. It’s December 1981, and he’s recounting his life story in the shape of a letter addressed to his former lover, Janusz, who has chosen to remain under the oppressive communist rule of his homeland rather than risk ending up “living in a freezing attic, like a rat” in a capitalist country he has been indoctrinated to despise.
An elegiac tone is set early on, with an enticing hint at secrets to be revealed. “I don’t know if I ever want you to read this, but I know that I need to write it … some things cannot be erased through silence.”
Ludwik begins his story with his childhood years, which he spent living with his mother and grandmother in war-scarred Sixties Wrocław. He first becomes conscious of his homosexuality aged nine, when he develops a crush on a boy in his Communion class. “I was aware of wanting to see Beniek naked… and my heart leapt when he undressed.”
The thing that “cannot be erased through silence” is the doomed relationship between Ludwik and Janusz, which begins when they meet at a summer work camp in 1980. Ludwik is reading an illicit copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, pasted between false covers, and lends it to strapping Janusz, who he has spied swimming naked in a lake, his body “slim and strong”. Janusz takes the bait, and soon the pair are off on a camping trip, sunbathing through the days and exploring their forbidden passions at night, Brokeback Mountain-style.
Trouble comes when they return to Warsaw, a city of sinister buildings, food shortages and dark forces at work. Tensions between the lovers escalate as the idealistic Ludwik dreams of freedom in the West, while practical, handsome Janusz finds he is able to have everything he wants by sharing favours with Warsaw’s well-connected answer to Sally Bowles (Christopher Isherwood’s spirit haunts this novel). Why would he ever want to leave?
Swimming in the Dark has all the ingredients of the best coming-of-age gay love stories, but with its 1980s Eastern Bloc setting providing enough edginess to make it feel entirely original. Ludwik and Janusz’s arguments about opposing political systems are as relevant today as they were back then. “I don’t mind hard work as long as you get something for it,” says Ludwik. He later describes his mother’s “pointless life” working for the state electricity office. “I think it was despair that killed her.” The Poles he meets in New York, meanwhile, “have hope in their eyes”.
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.
Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski (Bloomsbury, £14.99), buy it here.