With James Baldwin's legendary Giovannni's Room echoing throughout, Jedrowski's poetic novel set during Poland's Solidarity movement of the 1980s deals with the darkest of emotions. Jedrowski's prose soars like an eagle, giving the events unfolding in Swimming in the Dark a hidden depth and meaning that reflects Ludwik's great love for blue-eyed Janusz, whom Luwick meets one summer. In June 1980 in Warsaw, Ludwik has locked himself into the stories from the books he loves, dreaming of their characters at night, even pretending to be them.
At summer camp with best friend Karolina by his side, Ludwik sees the Polish system for what it is: a corrupt practice that sees "obedience as the key," a spiel that Ludwik has heard all his life. Sharp memories knock on the door of his consciousness. From New York, Ludwik tells us he's found a home in the West, yet he still pines for Warsaw and that summer trip to the lake district. The mutual attraction with Janusz was instant as they spent sunny days camping and swimming, "like a single body floating."
Ludwik surprises himself in sharing the book with Janusz so early, but he feels a strange trust: "You smiled, dissolving the tension, your teeth flashing in the light of the fire. You smelled of water and pines, softness then hardness." In the West, society is less apt to treat Ludwik's sexuality as something akin to a zoo animal. As he takes the subway across to Manhattan, he has some sort of intuition. Ludwik recalls Constitution Square with its gigantic Stalinist buildings and the streets of Warsaw, the women with large wavy hair, heavy bright necklaces and fox collars, and men in well-cut suits and serious clean faces, the smoke dancing up from their American cigarettes.
"I tried not to think of all the things I had imagined we'd do together." Perhaps they could have returned to their lake next summer, even moved in together someday. Ludwik tries not to think of Hania, Janusz's fingers on her sequined dress, or of their friend Maksio and his eyes when he saw them in the forest. Jedrowski transports us through Ludwick's various stages of self-doubt and self-awareness, through his numerous quests for love and acceptance, through his bitter disappointments, and finally through the daunting labors of betrayal.
While the best passages are early in the novel, when Ludwick unfurls a heartbreaking account of his childhood, the story of Beniek. He came more than a decade before Janusz; Ludwik met him when Beniek was only nine but had turned into a man. When Ludwik lived with his mother and granny, he wanted Beniek to come and live with him: "the need to kiss him crept out of the night like a wolf." Later in the novel, the scenes with Janusz capture summer at its height, time seemingly suspended. In the evening, Janusz and Ludwik climb to the top of the Palace of Culture, the city lying before them in all its vastness.
Through Ludwik's voice, Jedrowski peeks behind the iron curtain: a Radio Free Europe broadcasting live from Munich, the man's voice calmer, less aggressive; Party Chairman Gomulka's ancient face scowling down; the marches; the May 1st celebrations; the anniversaries of the October revolution; the strikes gripping the country; and the city of Warsaw itself, a dirty and broken place with layers of soot and age on the facades, a "murky secondhand world." Jedrowski's takes us through his hero's lost love, a series of moments that merge into one another, disfiguring one another like too many voices speaking at once.
Janusz and Ludwik's love story is central, unsatisfied but beautiful, heartbreaking and tragic. In the end, the two have to face the consequences of what they have wrought as dawn arrives and Ludwick leaves Poland forever, a circle of life that began that summer when he forced himself to talk to Janusz. Deep inside, Ludwik knows that he might run back to Janusz in an instant if the world could be a different place.