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213 pages, Kindle Edition
First published February 6, 2020
…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.This is a stunning work of surpassing beauty!
This is how I lived back then—through books. I locked myself into their stories, dreamt of their characters at night, pretended to be them. They were my armor against the hard edges of reality. I carried them with me wherever I went, like a talisman in my pocket, thinking of them as almost more real than the people around me, who spoke and lived in denial, destined, I thought, to never do anything worth recounting.Walking one day by the river near the camp, he sees a young man swimming, Janusz. They strike up a friendship, with Janusz encouraging Ludwik to step deeper and deeper into the water until he is swimming, in a clear sexual metaphor.
Some people, some events, make you lose your head. They’re like guillotines, cutting your life in two, the dead and the alive, the before and after.While Janusz becomes Ludwik’s great love, they find themselves on opposite shores politically, as Janusz has made his peace with the existing power structure and wants to work his way up within it. Ludwik knows that he can never be himself in such a system and wants to pull Janusz away from what he sees as moral peril, but he is still living in a corrupt system, and sometimes compromise is unavoidable.
It felt as if the words and thoughts of the narrator—despite their agony, despite their pain—healed some of my agony and my pain, simply by existing.Freedom of diverse sorts is considered. It is clear that in this very corrupt society, the in-group, the party faithful, the party operatives, have much more freedom to do as they please than the rest of society. But this requires that they themselves become corrupt, (presuming they did not start out that way) overlook clear cases of governmental thievery or incompetence, taking excess material benefits for themselves, while others endure rationing and shortages. Questions of freedom extend to what subjects are considered politically appropriate for graduate school theses. Even the ability to get a seat in graduate school can be curtailed by a less-gifted student with a more powerful political connection. Freedom of movement can be constrained by corrupt officials in charge of granting passports. Everywhere you turn there are barriers to freedom, the freedom to love who you want, or the absence of it, obviously being central.
My life was a tiny narrow corridor with no doors leading off it, a tunnel so narrow it bruised my elbows, with only one way to go. That or the void I told myself. That or leave.Jedrowski captures this beautifully, contrasting the stark differences between the decadence of those considered more equal than others, their access to materials and services, their condescension, with the meager existence of working people. Some people have little or no access to needed medical help, for example, while for others it is only a phone call away.
It rained for days on end. The drops drummed onto the rooftops and hammered the streets. Thunder growled like the anger of our forefathers. It felt like the city was under attack, like the city and its streets might begin to give way, dissolve, its life flowing into the Wisla and out into the cold depths of the sea.There have been many great books, great romances, set in times of political turmoil. Doctor Zhivago, on a far grander scale, comes to mind. But, while Swimming in the Dark is a much smaller book both in size and ambition, it captures that same sense of the earth crumbling beneath your feet. Similarly, it contrasts those who stay with those who go, showing their conflicts and motivations. I was reminded of The Unbearable Lightness of Being as well, for its portrayal of Eastern European oppression. It also summoned to mind great coming of age novels set in tumultuous times, like A Separate Peace.
We swam, fearless and free and invisible in the brilliant dark.
‘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.’
’Because it’s in English that I really started reading books properly. It’s this part of my mind that feels really intimate and private, but not the same as intimacy between me and my family or intimacy between me and my husband. It’s a sort of self-intimacy.
“My life was a tiny narrow corridor with no doors leading off it, a tunnel so narrow it bruised my elbows, with only one way to go. That or the void, I told myself. That or leave.”This book speaks in a quiet voice, but the surprising strength of a quiet and lyrical voice can be unexpectedly mesmerizing.
It was the time of resentment and discontent, chafing against the oppressive bonds and the start of Solidarity movement which eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet rule over the course of the decade.
“This is how I lived back then – through books. I locked myself into their stories, dreamt of their characters at night, pretended to be them. They were my armour against the hard edges of reality. I carried them with me wherever I went, like a talisman in my pocket, thinking of them as almost more real than the people around me, who spoke and lived in denial, destined, I thought, to never do anything worth recounting.”Janusz, coming from a poor village family of “nothing’, drunks like so many others”, is on the other hand grateful for the opportunities to rise above his lot in life, to advance, to take life by the horns and make it give to him everything it can. He does not want to destroy the system — he prefers to find the ways to make the system work for him, even if it means joining the ranks of the despised corrupt elite with their coveted life of excesses. He has a good grasp on how to get what he wants and how to succeed.
“I felt like a child again, a happy one this time, whose wishes had always been granted. On the other side of the window night had fallen, and dark figures moved past in the street with downcast faces and empty bags, and empty stomachs, I guessed. But we didn’t see them. It was so much better on this side of the glass. So much warmer, so much softer.”What unites them is their forbidden love, the experience of reading an illegal copy of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. What separates them is everything else, Ludwik’s “dreamer” self, Janusz’s stalwart practicality. And who’s to say whose approach to life is better — to run away or to carve out a niche for oneself? Although we are meant to empathize with Ludwik, I felt for Janusz and his also impossible situation.
“I’m not cut out for it, Ludwik,’ you said, like an apology. ‘I belong here. And I will make it, one way or another.”It is a quiet book, short on grandiose ideas and passionate proclamations. It is softly, lyrically written and focuses on the smaller scope of individuals rather than the ideas, while still giving us more than a passing glance at the greater political events underlying human existence. And that’s where its strength lies for me — in the humanity of it.
“I reached out for your old self, waiting for our masks to wear off in the cold of the night.”It is a strong and thoughtful debut novel. I hope to see more from Tomasz Jedrowski soon.
“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.”
“I don’t know whether I ever want you to read this, but I know that I need to write it. Because you've been on my mind for too long. I am done with pretending that I’ve erased you from my mind. Some things cannot be erased through silence. Some people have that power over you, whether you like it or not. I begin to see that now. Some people, some events, make you lose your head. They're like guillotines, cutting your life in two, the dead and the alive, the before and after.”
“We hadn't really talked about ‘us’, or what it would be like back in the city, or anything else. There was no ‘us’. Of course, I had thought about it, had wanted to ask: ‘What is this? What are we going to do with it when we get back?’
I remember I only dared ask on the last night, as we lay in the dark of the tent, about to fall asleep after having made love. I asked the question into the dark, afraid. You didn’t say anything for an interminable moment and I thought you had fallen asleep. Finally, you whispered, ‘I don’t want this to end.’
My heart beating hard, knocking against the wall of my chest, I replied: ‘Me neither.”
“I approached, until I could see the drops of water on your forehead and on the tip of your nose and in the corners of your mouth. We didn’t say a thing. We looked at each other, already beyond words. You were there and I was there, close, breathing. And I moved into your circle. All the way to your waiting body and your calm, open face and the drops on your lips. Your arms closed around me. Hard. And then we were one single body floating in the lake, weightless, never touching the ground.”
“Because you were right when you said that people can’t always give us what we want from them; that you can’t ask them to love you the way you want. No one can be blamed for that. And 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?”
“‘I’m glad this happened,’ I said, enjoying the sound of my voice and its gentle vibration in my body.
‘Me too.’ You turned your head towards me, your eyes bright. ‘I knew it would happen since the beginning,’ you said, smiling.
“We walked on through the forest, taking in its furtive sounds, until we reached our clearing and saw the moon on the surface of the lake. We stopped and watched. Then, without a word, we undressed and slipped into the water. We swam, fearless and free and invisible in the brilliant dark.”
“I realise now that we never talked much about our pasts. Maybe it would have changed something if we had, maybe we would have understood each other better and everything would have bene different. Who can say?”
“Did you ever have someone like that, someone that you loved in vain when you were younger? Did you ever feel something like my shame? I always assumed that you must have, that you can’t possibly have gone through life as carelessly as you made out. But I begin to think that not everyone suffers in the same way; that not everyone, in fact, suffers. Not from the same things, at any rate. And in a way this is what made us possible, you and me.”
“This is how I lived back then – through books. I locked myself into their stories, dreamt of their characters at night, pretended to be them. They were my armour against the hard edges of reality. I carried them with me wherever I went, like a talisman in my pocket, thinking of them as almost more real than the people around me, who spoke and lived in denial, destined, I thought, to never do anything worth recounting.”
“My greatest terror was ending up alone. Yet part of me was sure that’s how I would end up, and that it was the worst thing that could happen to someone.”
“There was something about the way you looked at me that made me feel as if you didn’t judge. There are only so many people we meet in life who give us that feeling. And yet that night, as I lay in bed reading after the others had gone to sleep, I was scared. Scared about the hole I had made by trusting you, scared by the vulnerability it had created.”
“You shook your head and stared at some distant point on the horizon. ‘I should have known you’re one of them.’
‘Them what?’ I said, nervous suddenly, wondering whether I had made a big mistake.
You turned to me briskly. ‘Dreamers,’ you said, your mouth widening into a teasing smile.
I let the word ring out, relieved and warm by your smile so close to my face. ‘What’s wrong with dreaming about freedom?’ I said.
‘Freedom?’ you huffed, and smiled, as if you’d had the same conversation many times before. ‘Having oranges and banana every month of the year – is that freedom to you?’ Your smile was gone.
‘There is freedom in having what you want,’ I said carefully, “in choosing for yourself.’”
“I don’t know how many days we stayed at the lake, because each one was like a whole world, every moment new and unrepeatable. In a way these felt like the first days of my life, as if I’d been born by that lake and its water and you. As if I’d shed a skin and left my previous life behind.”
“‘You’ve changed,’ she said, calmly, like a clairvoyant announcing someone’s fate.
‘Have I?’ I made a grimace.
‘Your face.’ She held her hand to it, her middle finger resting on my cheekbone. ‘It looks like something’s opened up, something that was folded tight. Like a fist. I’d never noticed before, but now I do.’
“’So we’ve suddenly become a secret, huh?’
‘We’ve always been a secret, Ludwik. It’s just that until now there was no one to hide from.’
“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.”
“I am hungry, suddenly, as if I haven't eaten in weeks. I want borscht and pierogi and warm poppy-seed cake, and I feel this as a vast cavernous emptiness inside me, a yearning for warmth. But it isn’t painful at all. It feels like a promise.”
“It’s best to start with the beginning—or at least what feels like it. I realise now that we never much talked about our pasts. Maybe it would changed something if we had, maybe we would have understood each other better and everything would have been different. Who can say?”
“You listened, really listened, gentle eyes taking me in without judgment, making me feel more heard than I knew I could be.”
“To my own surprise, I was unable to accept the shame he wanted me to feel. It was too familiar to be imposed: I had produced it myself for such a long time that, right then, I found I had no space left for it any more.”
“Selfish. Growing into yourself is nothing but that.”
“I even attempt a smile. But I sense that either way my foreignness somehow absolves me from their judgment. To them, it must explain my strangeness completely.”
“I was transported into a vision of my life that made me so dizzy my head began to spin. Shame, heavy and alive, had materialised, built from buried fears and desires.”
“My life was a tiny narrow corridor with no doors leading of it, a tunnel so narrow it bruised my elbows, with only one way to go. That or the void, I told myself. That or leave.”
“One day your country is yours, and the next it isn’t.”
“But like stones thrown into the sky with all one’s might, pieces of that night - the boys and the men who wanted them, the flirtation, the codes of seduction I could only guess at - returned to me with even greater intensity than I had lived. The law of gravity applies to memories too.”
“I wondered about your role in all this, what kind of pact you’ve made with yourself. Because we all make one, even the best of us. And it’s rarely immaculate. No matter how hard we try.”
“I was paralysed by possibility, caught between the vertigo of fulfillment and the abyss of uncertainty.”
“How does one bond with another child, as a child? Maybe it’s simply through common interest. Or maybe it’s something that lies deeper, for which everything you say and do is an unwitting code. ”
“It sounded like an appeal, a right violated and invoked. My hand on the door handle, my back to you, heart pulsing in my temples. I could sense the word throbbing in the air. My name, claiming me. It wrapped its fingers around my shoulders and tried to hold me back.”