Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

Tomasz Jedrowski's Debut Novel Tells Teenage Love Story In '80s Poland

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Summer can be a time to wander in a forest until you get lost, skinny-dip in a lake by moonlight, fall in love. While protests and the pandemic might make this summer a little different, we can still experience some of those moments through fiction.

The new novel "Swimming In The Dark" is a teenage love story set in Poland in the 1980s. The narrator, Janusz, meets a young man named Ludwik at a summer work camp. It's the debut novel by Tomasz Jedrowski, who joins us from his home in France.

Welcome.

TOMASZ JEDROWSKI: Thank you, Ari. Happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: How did you conceive of the central relationship in this book between these two young men?

JEDROWSKI: For me, it's essentially a coming-of-age story with a love story attached to it. I think the love story is very important, the love between two young men and the first time that they really fall in love. That's something very powerful that I wanted to explore. But beyond that, what I really wanted to go into is how a young person becomes an adult and how he chooses to become himself, how he faces those choices that we all have to make when we transition into adulthood. And that is, which path am I going to take? What sort of person am I going to be, and what compromises will I make?

And I really wanted to explore what would happen if the person that you love and that is the center of your world at that moment doesn't share your world view and what happens when things become more and more urgent when you live in an oppressive society where you have to be more and more aware of what you can do because, I mean, freedom is a little bit like air, isn't it? If you don't have much of it, then you have to be very aware of your breathing and of your every move. And I thought that becoming an adult in any society is hard enough. But then what happens when it's in a society where you're not necessarily encouraged to become yourself?

SHAPIRO: You were born in West Germany to Polish parents, so why did you set this story in communist Poland?

JEDROWSKI: Because I grew up with my parents' stories of their youth. And when I was growing up in Germany - this was mostly in the '90s - my parents' youth in communist Poland seemed like the most exotic thing to me. I just - I could hardly imagine a society where everything was so scarce and the government was so oppressive. And I think when I started writing, I really wanted to understand in a more intimate way how life had been back there. I felt like I couldn't really figure out what to do with my life or how to move on without understanding what came before and what my parents had left behind and also what people had fought for.

SHAPIRO: And so did researching this book help you understand your parents in a different way and the world that they had come from?

JEDROWSKI: I think I understood that personal experience is personal and that it's representative on the one hand and highly subjective on the other as well. So it's interesting because my mother always portrayed her life in a very dramatic way, painting her life in communist Poland in the most - I mean, the bleakest colors possible. And then you had my father, who came from a different background - more working class, less enlightened, I want to say, about the political situation and the political past of the country - who I don't think suffered that much. So when I started doing my research and when I moved to Warsaw and I started talking to people who had been young at the time, I realized that people had different ways of looking at it. And some people missed the regime, and they actually missed, bizarrely, some of the freedoms that they'd had that they couldn't have under a capitalist regime.

SHAPIRO: Because the book is set in a time and a place that your parents lived, I wonder how they've responded to it.

JEDROWSKI: Well, my mother - I used the word dramatic and tragic when I mentioned earlier (laughter). And...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) She sounds like a character.

JEDROWSKI: She is a character. She loved it. She absolutely loved it. And I didn't expect her to. I had built this wall to protect myself whereby I expected her not to care or not to respond to it. And I thought that was her right as well because it is her history, in a way. It was her youth, so I didn't expect her to feel anything. But I remember very precisely how I showed her the first few pages. And we sat next to each other. And I think by the end of the first page, she was already crying. And I was crying with her. And it felt very therapeutic. It touched me in a place that I hadn't known that I needed comforting.

SHAPIRO: You describe how scarce things were in Poland in the 1980s - medicine, food. And the book has these images of lines snaking around shops as people wait for bread to show up. And as I read it and I pictured those lines, I put people standing six feet apart from one another wearing masks in my head. And, of course, you wrote this before the pandemic, but I wonder if this description of economic collapse takes on a different color in light of the economic struggles that we all see around us right now.

JEDROWSKI: That's a really interesting question. I think definitely because we've now - we've grown up in a system that seems to put economic growth above everything else. And I think it's so natural to us, even to me for many years, that we didn't really question it. Growth seems to have been linked to happiness, to prosperity, to well-being. And I think what I discovered when I was researching life under communist Poland is that a lot of people didn't think that way.

The - there's a moment where Ludwik's best friend Carolina (ph) tells him that the economy has been collapsing ever since we were born. For them, economic collapse is something normal. And yet, life continues. People find other ways to be happy. People still fall in love. People still go to the forest, as you said in your introduction. People still go skinny-dipping. People still smoke cigarettes. And people still dream. They just have other means of dreaming, and their dreams are a bit different. But I don't think that takes away from their happiness necessarily. And I think that's something that we can learn from the past right now.

SHAPIRO: That's really reassuring.

JEDROWSKI: Yeah. I mean, I think a consequence of that if you want to take it further is also, well, OK, maybe we will have less, but I just hope that the government won't step in and be as oppressive as in other regimes, right? So we might struggle with material hardship, but, I mean, I wish we won't have to fight the government and taking away our rights and creating that scarcity of freedom.

SHAPIRO: Tomasz Jedrowski's debut novel is "Swimming In The Dark."

Thank you so much for talking with us about it.

JEDROWSKI: Thank you, Ari, for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM ORBIT'S "PAVANE POUR UNE INFANTE DEFUNTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.