Swimming in the Dark…
About the Book:
Poland, 1980. Anxious, disillusioned Ludwik Glowacki, soon to graduate university, has been sent along with the rest of his class to an agricultural camp. Here he meets Janusz – and together, they spend a dreamlike summer swimming in secluded lakes, reading forbidden books – and falling in love.
But with summer over, the two are sent back to Warsaw, and to the harsh realities of life under the Party. Exiled from paradise, Ludwik and Janusz must decide how they will survive; and in their different choices, find themselves torn apart.
Swimming in the Dark is an unforgettable debut about youth, love, and loss – and the sacrifices we make to live lives with meaning.
‘Some people, like events, make you lose your head. They’re like guillotines, cutting your life in two, the dead and the alive, the before and the after.’
This little novel turned out to be quite the sublime reading experience. On the one hand it is a story of first love; forbidden love. Ludwik is homosexual and this is Poland at the beginning of the 1980s. His love affair with Janusz is not just forbidden, it is dangerous for them both. But in addition to being a love story, this is a coming of age story for Ludwik, who has just finished university, who is intuitively aware of the problems that exist within his country, and is at a crossroads: Where to now? Who does he want to become? And what would he be willing to sacrifice to get there?
‘Work had seemed like the beginning of the end, university a prolonging of youth. I’d enjoyed it, despite its limitations – we couldn’t read what we wanted and were meant to see the decadence of capitalism in all Western texts, even if most professors barely pretended to care about the Party.’
The Polish Crisis is beginning to unfold within the timeline of this novel. Ludwik and Janusz have vastly differing perspectives on their country: the past, the present, and what the future should look like. Janusz is a sell-out; he will work the system until it works for him. Ludwik, on the other hand, feels the weight of socialism, sees the disparity, and the idea of selling out is repugnant to him. But his struggle with this to reach the point of action was so intricately wrought, and written with such insight and empathy.
‘I pretended not to see the obvious truth: that we had never asked for this system. That it had been forced upon us.’
This novel then becomes so much more; a story of a nation and its uprising, its refusal to continue to tow the Party line.
‘A photo filled the screen for a moment, showing a tank parked on a snowy square, a couple of soldiers climbing out of its hatch. Right behind them a building I recognise with a pain of nostalgia – the Moskwa, a cinema where Karolina and I used to go sometimes. But most remarkable: the poster that hung above the tank, Apocalypse Now in bloody red type, the new film by Coppola. For a moment the absurdity of it filled my throat, threatened to suffocate me. All these years they’d let us what foreign films, allowing us glimpses of the world across the Wall, of freedoms we didn’t have. Did they really think we’d be still for ever?
I thought of the photographer and his courage, imagining how the photo had made it out of the country: a roll of film smuggled into West Germany, in a secret compartment or an emptied tube of toothpaste. Anonymous figures trapped on the wrong side of history, compressed and rolled up inside a stranger’s pocket. No matter what happens in the world, however brutal or dystopian a thing, not all is lost if there are people out there risking themselves to document it.’
I have a particular interest in historical novels about the Eastern Bloc and this one is a fine addition to my little collection. For a debut novel, it sings with triumph. It’s a story rich in feeling and insight, a history lesson played out against a backdrop of raw human emotion, intimate betrayal, and personal reckoning.
‘And yet, it occurs to me now that we can never run with our lies indefinitely. Sooner or later we are forced to confront their darkness. We can choose the when, not the if. And the longer we wait, the more painful and uncertain it will be. Even our country is doing it now – facing its archive of lies, wading through the bog towards some new workable truth.’
Thanks is extended to Bloomsbury for providing me with a copy of Swimming in the Dark for review.
Swimming in the Dark
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Released 3rd March 2020