The World's Best Unknown Books
30 07 2014

200 years of 'fathers and sons' letters

Postal Deviations Kazimierz Brandys

Translation Antonia Lloyd-Jones

The epistolary novel would seem a very worthy, classic genre, but in Postal Deviations Kazimierz Brandys has managed to get a great deal out of this formula, giving us a novel that is thoroughly modern, thoughtful and enjoyable.

Brandys’ incredible gift of writing makes you believe you yourself are part of the story.

Olga Tokarczuk

The book consists of a series of letters written by the male members of the Zabierski family, presented in pairs: thus we have a letter written by father to son, and then the son’s reply (though the last letter has no reply). The first two letters are dated 1770 and the next are from 1799, and so, jumping from generation to generation, we reach the year 1970. All the letters combine to form a fascinating account of the family’s mixed fortunes against the backdrop of succeeding historical eras and events, but it can also be read at a much deeper level.

The main thing the members of this family appear to have in common is a strong tendency to embark on fantastical projects and crazy enterprises, but they also seem to be dogged by bad luck. In the second letter we read the dramatic tale of Jakub, who was captured by the Turks and spent months on end locked in a cage with a monkey; not only did he befriend it, he even committed a sin with it. His obsession with monkeys never left him, not even in old age, and for future generations it became something in between a family legend and a shocking secret. Another secret that resembles a story out of an adventure novel is revealed by Jakub’s son, the one-legged Seweryn, who in a letter to his son Jan Nepomucen explains the real reasons for his disability. Badly injured during the Napoleonic campaign in Russia, and then abandoned in a remote place, to avoid dying of starvation he ate his own amputated limb; for the rest of his life this incident caused him sleepless nights, worrying that auto-cannibalism might be a mortal sin (his search for certainty has taken him all the way to the Pope). In turn, Seweryn’s brother, Michaś, became involved with a mystical organisation; some years later as leader of his own sect he went to America and joined the Indian braves. Further down the line, a young man called Julian, living in the early twentieth century, became embroiled in a scandal involving a prostitute and the tsarist secret police… These are just some of the storylines that feature in the incredible saga of the Zabierski family.

The great qualities of Brandys’ writing include extremely good story-telling and a whole gallery of excellent characters, added to which the novel is composed in an enchanting style – or rather styles, because each of the letters is written in language appropriate to its era, instantly transporting the reader to those days. The Zabierskis’ fortunes are at times dramatic, but also comical, shocking, but also moving; they border on the grotesque, but are also affecting. Thus Postal Deviations reflects on individual life contrasted with the passage of time, on madness and reason, on memory, on the difficult relationships between parents and their children, and above all on the processes that create history, which can be even more fabulous than fiction.

Translation rights: Fundacja Ochrony Dziedzictwa Zydowskiego (Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage)

Original language
Original title
Wariacje pocztowe (1972)
Earlier in these languages
German, Italian

Available as
192 pages