Polish Holiday

Tomasz Jedrowski – Swimming in the Dark (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Wioletta Greg – Swallowing Mercury (Portobello Books, 2017)

I was recently on holiday with my fiancée. She is Polish and we were travelling Poland, as we do every year. At her mother’s, she showed me her childhood photo albums. The pictures were in black and white.

“Were you born in 1895?” I asked, facetiously.

“No. It was communism. We didn’t have colour film.”

When people tell stories about the evils of communism they tend to focus on the gulags, the famines, the disappearances, the displacements, the wars. Poland suffered terribly in the 1940s and 1950s but got off relatively lightly afterwards. As a result, there’s not much literature about it.

I wanted to know more about this black and white world that existed concurrent to my own childhood. A time when my parents, in their hubris, were using disposable cameras.

Tomasz Jedrowski’s Swimming in the Dark is about this time, as is Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury.

Jedrowski’s book is written and published in English. It tells the story of a young gay man living through the late 1960s and early 1970s in Poland. He meets the love of his life at a “Back to the Land” camp and aspires to an academic career.

His lover, Janusz, joins the Party and is wooed by the daughter of a big wig. Our narrator struggles to reconcile his desire for Janusz with his disgust at the Party’s corruption and, as we know from flash-forwards, the tale ends with him fleeing the country.

The book has been called a Polish Brokeback Mountain. This would be an apt summary, if one didn’t doubt the possibility of the book actually appearing in Poland.

The current Law & Justice party has learned from corporate America that one can avoid all sorts of awkward questions as long as one shouts enough about LGBT issues. Where corporate America is “pro”, PiS is currently “anti”. This means high praise for Jedrowski in The Guardian but a muted response from Poland itself.

It also makes Swimming the Dark very difficult to discuss without bringing politics into it. The novel, after all, has its flaws. It is very breathily written, with lots of beating hearts, cold sweats and heads spinning. There are also mixed metaphors like “the city was a ghost filled with comatose trees” that make you lament the absence of a copy editor.

All this pot-boiling certainly does get the heart racing though. It’s pacey and uncomplicated, written for the outsider, and so an excellent holiday read.

Greg’s novel is the antithesis of Jedrowski’s. It appeared in Polish in 2014 as Guguły, and has only recently been translated into English by Eliza Marciniak. Marciniak has kept the book’s genuine Polish flavour, and has worked wonders turning Greg’s poetic prose into a rosy-cheeked and nostalgic English.

Swallowing Mercury is also a coming-of-age story that straddles the end of communism. Where Swimming in the Dark is explicit in its depictions of marchers, Solidarność, and government crackdowns, however, Greg’s novel is remarkably light of touch. Historical events are so far in the background that a non-political reader might not ever notice them.

Wiola, the novel’s protagonist, grows up in the rural South. She is brought into the world wrapped in a red ribbon, to ward off ghosts, and is raised by her animal-stuffing father and forever-queuing mother. She is, as the Polish would say, a wieśniak (a country bumpkin).

In short, epiphanic snapshots, we see her going in school, taking part in religious festivals and village traditions and, later, as the system collapses around her, we see a teenaged Wiola huffing glue and running away to Warsaw.

My favourite moment sees her winning a national painting competition for schools. The theme is “Threats Around Your Farm” and so she paints the beetles that her grandad catches in a Coca-Cola bottle. The Party commends her for depicting, “highly symbolically”, the damaging potential of the imperialist pest.

The next year she submits a cityscape; the theme being “Moscow Through Your Eyes”. She spills ink on the painting by accident, however, and it prompts a visit from the Party. “Who has told you to do this?” they ask, insisting that the ink is a symbolic tidal wave, crashing down on the Soviet seat of power.

This is the most dramatic moment in the book when it comes to the Party. The rest of the time they are ever-present, but always in the background. It is a truer depiction of everyday life under communism than can be found in Jedrowski’s book, but its understatement often leads one to wonder if one is missing a wider point.

Swallowing Mercury is a highly socio-political novel, but it is written for those already in-the-know. Swimming in the Dark is, by comparison, a primer.

I would recommend both novels. They made excellent companion pieces, but some readers may enjoy one and not the other. Both illuminate a time and place not often talked about. For millennial readers in particular they offer valuable insights into an alternative nineties; one that happened in a place only two hours flight away, but might as well have been on another planet entirely.

– Joe Darlington

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