It’s tough to feel like you don’t belong. Most people experience this sensation at some point, but imagine how intense it would be if you were a gay man coming of age under a government that expected allegiance you weren’t prepared to offer.
That’s the situation in which Polish university student Ludwik Glowacki finds himself in Swimming in the Dark, a moving work set in 1980 and 1981. These were the early years of Solidarity (the first independent labor union in a Soviet-bloc country), which led to communist Poland’s declaration of martial law. When the government crackdown begins in ’81, Ludwik is living in New York. Radio reports of unrest rekindle memories of his homeland, specifically of the young man with whom he fell in love.
Most of this novel consists of flashbacks to events of the previous year. Ludwik meets Janusz at a work education camp shortly after they graduate from university. The two young men develop a friendship and swim together at a nearby river. Ludwik recommends Giovanni’s Room, the James Baldwin novel he hoped to make the subject of his dissertation. Soon they fall in love, an affair they have to hide.
But reality disrupts their idyll. As Ludwik’s mother and grandmother teach him about their country’s oppressive postwar history, Janusz becomes an enthusiastic member of the ruling party. Ludwik is forced to choose between the love of a man whose politics he questions and his desire to emulate Baldwin’s gay protagonist and leave his country to escape oppression.
First-time author Tomasz Jedrowski, born in Germany to Polish parents, sometimes tries too hard to be poetic (“the sun was already up, soft and new like a freshly peeled egg”), and Swimming in the Dark is a simpler affair than such recent works of gay literature as Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness. But Jedrowski is a sympathetic observer of politics, the personal as well as the governmental. Readers will find much to admire in this sensitive depiction of the awareness that is created when your sexuality and politics run up against society’s norms.