This coming of age novel explores what it means to be queer in Poland

'Swimming in the Dark' is a sun-soaked love story that rivals 'Call Me By Your Name' and contextualises the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights.

by Dane Harrison
15 July 2020, 8:00am

Near the end of Tomasz Jedrowski’s debut novel Swimming in the Dark, its young narrator Ludwik wonders: “The odds have been stacked against us from the start: we had no manual, no one to show us the way. Not one example of a happy couple made up of boys. How were we supposed to know what to do? Did we even believe that we deserved to get away with happiness?”

This idea runs through the pages of Swimming in the Dark, throughout LGBTQ+ history and most recently, has become a topic of debate in Poland -- where the novel takes place. Jedrowski was born in Germany to Polish parents and currently lives with his husband in the French countryside. He celebrated the novel's release in Poland in February, but when the author returned there just last week, he saw a Poland transformed, “so lush and green”, yet also in the midst of a tumultuous political moment.

About a third of the country have established ‘LGBT free zones’ this year, and an amendment to the country’s constitution has been signed in an attempt to ban same-sex couples from adopting children. The conservative President Duda, who previously compared “LGBT ideology” to being “even more destructive than Communism,” has just been reelected.

Swimming in the Dark gives context to the struggles of queer people in Poland, both decades ago under Communism, and today.

For Jedrowski, “there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done” in the country, but he doesn’t feel “any ill-will, any hatred” towards Poland’s conservative citizens. “There’s a lot of anxiety being channeled into this topic, a lot of fear-mongering and propaganda. Partly it’s about LGBTQ+ people -- but mostly it’s about power.”

In Poland, homophobia is being politicized, electrically charged. And while of course homophobia is everywhere -- across Europe, six out of ten LGBT couples avoid holding hands in public for fear of discrimination -- Jedrowski asserts that Swimming in the Dark is not ultimately about homophobia: “It’s also an homage and celebration of Polish culture, and the beauty of nature there.”

Set in the Socialist Republic of Poland in 1980, the novel stitches together memories of the country’s strict government alongside simple moments of sun-drenched levity. The young characters find blissful feelings beneath anxiety -- in flushed skin and moonlight, in skinny-dipping under cool, weightless water. Moments in which shame “melted like a mint” on the tongue, “hardness releasing sweetness.”

The story begins when Ludwik, a 22-year-old student grappling with his sexuality and political consciousness, meets the very different, very confident Janusz at an agricultural summer camp. As weeks of picking beets draw on, the two of them start to run into each other more and more. Ludwik had brought a copy of James Baldwin’s groundbreaking gay novel Giovanni’s Room to camp, its pages hidden under the cover of another book. When Janusz asks if he can borrow it, Ludwik reluctantly agrees, knowing that after that summer they’d likely never see each other again, and not wanting to be “devoured by regrets” like Baldwin’s protagonist. For the pair, the book becomes a ticking time bomb and a literary lifeline to a foreign place where queer love feels possible.

“I’ve almost finished the book,” Janusz tells Ludwik, on the firelit last night of camp. He smiles and the chemistry between them becomes verifiably real: “I like it. I can see why it’s not officially published.”

Even in these small moments, Swimming in the Dark feels destined for a major film adaptation in the same vein as Call Me By Your Name. Its descriptions pulse with heat and heartache, and a soundtrack is basically already written into it -- Church choirs feature throughout, Blondie’s Heart of Glass rushes through a decadent house party, a Serge Gainsbourg song plays during the novel’s intense climax.

“I always wanted it to feel cinematic -- it’s a movie in my mind,” Jedrowski tells me. “I would absolutely love for it to be adapted, and I feel confident it will happen at some point.”

Though Ludwik and Janusz' love story begins in their own personal paradise, once they are back in Warsaw, hard questions start to surface: “So we’ve suddenly become a secret, huh?” Ludwik asks, after Janusz rejects the innocent proposition to meet him at his office, where he’s started a job assisting in the censorship of books. Janusz reminds Ludwik that the government has lists, where “they keep track” of people like them.

The pair are divided, even while so together, by their starkly opposing viewpoints of how to deal with life under the Polish United Workers’ Party. While Ludwik feels restless, Janusz, coming from a Southern village and a family of “nothing,” is grateful for any chance to make this harsh political system work for him.

With escalating scenes pertaining to police brutality, protests and power, this novel feels relevant for this summer in particular. “Every person has their own history. Every country has their own history. You can’t progress without looking back at the past,” Jedrowoski says. “And I don’t think progress is linear.”

Jedrowski has seemingly lived many different lives, having worked as a lawyer in London and in the fashion world, with Acne Studios. Yet the inception of this novel came about a few years ago, during a homecoming of sorts to Warsaw -- he’d been reflecting on how different life could have been for him if he'd been born there, in his parents’ country or during their generation. In 2012, “no one was out in Poland,” Jedrowski says. “It was just a taboo, and no one spoke about queerness, about otherness. There was nothing in Polish culture that was speaking to me.” And so, thankfully, he went about writing -- “to revive, to resuscitate, the queerness that had been silenced.”

coming of age
LGBTQ rights
swimming in the dark
Tomasz Jedrowski