“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons
James Casper’s novel Everywhere in Chains has been translated into Polish under a new title: Listy do Penelopy, which means Letters to Penelope—pen-pal communication, in fact, which draws together Penelope, the main character, and Felix, a lovable person who ultimately reunites her with her father.
Most novelists will tell you that it isn’t the pay that makes writing novels satisfying, it’s the comments they receive from people who read carefully and are struck by something in the words that affected them personally.
So, how do people in Poland feel about the novel? That’s best answered by reading their reviews.
We do not speak Polish in our house, and the translations Chrome affords are a bit herky-jerky, but one can reliably discern delight, wonder, and surprise, and easily gain a sense of how characters have impacted readers.
One reader writes: “Letters to Penelope, [by] James Casper is a novel that is read in one breath.” From what follows where the reviewer describes how quickly she became immersed in Penelope’s relationships with family and peers, she seems to be saying that she was pulled in from the start and wanted to continue . . . in one breath . . . without putting the book down.
Teen Penelope is a remarkable person—intelligent, sensitive, well-read . . . lives in [her] own world like a reality many years ago [unlike] the present which is dominated by cell phones, e-mail contacts and the Internet.
[The] life of Penelope sudden[ly] changes when [she begins exchanging] traditionally handwrit[ten] letters with slightly younger Felix. This correspondence, at first innocent, causes a storm and completely changes . . . the fate of the title character.
Casper’s novel [will appeal to] teenage and adult readers, [touching on] family problems [which are] close to every human being. And that is what makes [one] fast start to identify with the . . . characters. . . .
Expressive characters . . . their inner experience and the difficult decisions [they must make] is definitely one of the strengths of the [novel]. Fueling tension all the time [are] secrets of the past which gradually come to light to completely surprise the [reader] in the epilogue.
This is a thorough review, as you can see, and even without altering the translation much, it is clearly understood. However, this next line may challenge you: “When it seems that we already know everything, that every secret was revealed, the author of one piece literally captures our feet, [making us] look at everything from a new perspective.”
What do you make of the italicized part? After thinking about it a while, it may be an idiomatic expression that didn’t translate well, but it could mean something like “the author pulls the rug out from under us.” Here is the Polish for those of you who read it:
autor jednym fragmentem dosłownie zbija nas z nóg,
The reviewer concludes with, “Recommend Letters to Penelope with a clear conscience—[it] is a remarkable story about human sensitivity and injustice, about crime and punishment, [and about how] the reality [of those things] is not always . . . as we think.” –Beata Igielska.
“We read to know we’re not alone.”
― William Nicholson, Shadowlands
Published by Swiety Wojciech (Polish for “Adalbert of Prague”, a 10th century Bohemian missionary and Christian saint) based in Poznan, Poland, Letters to Penelope is included in a series of books called “Family Secrets” or “Family Mysteries”. If you speak Polish, feel free to comment and make that clear; here is the original: “rodzinne sekrety”.
It is translated by Anna Wawrzyniak-Kędziorek, and was released in late 2016, just three years after Everywhere in Chains became available at Ignatius Press.
The other reviewers are similarly detailed and descriptive. A snippet from one reviewer perceptively and rather poetically captures the special relationship Penelope and Felix seem destined to have:
Letters to Penelope is a bittersweet tale of two poles [as in ‘magnetic poles’] of life [Penelope=youth, Felix=age] attracting each other, establishing an invisible thread of sympathy and understanding. . . .
The book is written in beautiful language, devoid of profanity, focusing on the good side of human destiny, [and] is ideal reading for both young people and adults.
Jeke summarized the story and highlighted the pain and suffering of those who are family members of a person who has been sent to prison. He also picked up on Warren Hall’s mental illness, a problem of so many prisoners today, and his being “deprived of visits and information about [his] adolescent daughter.”
He concludes: “James Casper wrote a bold and provocative novel about a girl discovering bit by bit [her] past, breaking the conspiracy of silence surrounding her since childhood. Author surprisingly introduces new threads to the story, [and] perfectly shows the drama played out. . . .”
Jola writes: “Letters to Penelope is a beautiful story about a girl looking for [her] family roots, brought up in a lie and a conspiracy of silence. Penelope matures and begins to ask [herself] questions about the past, about the unknown biological father. Unusual strands of events . . . help her uncover the truth. Captivating story, which reads quickly. I would recommend.”
All the reviews agree Penelope is brave, steadfast, and determined, and that the novel reads quickly and keeps one’s interest.
Authors do not write in a vacuum, nor do they wish for their ideas to be lost in one. The thoughts of readers are a boon companion.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
To sum up, one reviewer in Poland had some difficulty with the book, saying that it challenged her. But the beautiful part is that she stuck with it, and was clearly rewarded:
Letters to Penelope is a book on which I expected something completely different. I was convinced that I [would] find the unruly teenager in search of [her] father who one day decided to [leave her and her mother] and forgot about his daughter. [However, this story] followed a different path. Life [for] Penelope turned out to be much more complicated than I imagined. Fortunately, the girl could always count on the support of good people who helped her get to the truth. . . . This novel pleased me very much. Its subject matter and the method of writing [is] a little different from that for which I usually reach . . . but I was very pleasantly surprised and really glad that it [came] in my hands. It’s a beautiful story about love, suffering, and forgiveness. I would recommend.
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”
― William Styron, Conversations with William Styron
These reviews are a pleasure to go through, working out what the translations mean in some cases, a puzzle all their own. Clearly, though, the takeaway is that this is a novel that is affecting people deeply and has a message of compassion and forgiveness at the heart of it..
If I could, I would read it in Polish, but I recommend the English version, Everywhere in Chains.