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Perrine Leblanc's "Kolia": pickpockets and clowns in the Gulag

This fall on Canada Writes we are celebrating new writing by bringing you excerpts of just-published work by Canadian authors. 

This week’s selection is Perrine Leblanc's Kolia, available now in bookstores.


When the then-30-year-old Perrine Leblanc’s first book was published in 2010, it caused quite an impression in Quebec literature. L’homme blanc, for which Kolia is the translation, was nominated for the Grand prix du livre de Montréal and won the Governor General's Literary Award for French Fiction — as well as the French “Canada Reads.” In its hot-off-the-presses translation, Kolia is one of the first books published by Arachnide Editions, House of Anansi's new imprint for Canadian French-to-English translated books.

For a first novel, Kolia is ambitious to say the least, but it's also irresistibly colourful. Set in Russia and spanning almost 60 years from 1937 to the mid-nineties, it follows Kolia, an orphan born in Russia’s Siberian camps who grows up in the harshness of the Gulag. His life begins anew in Moscow, where, in a series of colourful events, fortuitous meetings and misadventures, he grows into an expert pocket-thief and circus performer.

Read on below for an excerpt of Perrine Lelbanc’s Kolia:

Chapter: Combustion
By Perrine Leblanc

Kolia trained in front of a mirror for weeks on end until he finally found the grimace he had been searching for. It employed every muscle of his face and neck, and it was indescribably grotesque. He contorted his lips into a sinister smile, and closed his eyes until they were only slits, raising his eyebrows into two perfect arches which reached the middle of his forehead. His scalp was freshly shaved, and rogue hairs, indistinguishable to the audience, sprouted from his ears. This was the face from which the grimace took shape. He revealed it to the crowd for the first time during an innocuous sketch about tea drinking, and two young boys seated right at the edge of the ring burst into tears and started crying uncontrollably. Kolia could hear them. The boys’ distress caused Yulia to lose her timing, and the instant she stepped out of character, Kolia felt a shiver run up his spine. He spun around and winked at her with all the confidence of a master improviser, and little Bell stepped back into the ring without missing a beat. The goal was always the same — make the audience laugh so hard they forgot that, only moments ago, they were afraid. And when the house lights went up and Yulia could see the two boys smiling and applauding enthusiastically, she finally understood the essence of her art. It was something which couldn’t be taught at any circus school. It had to be lived. It had to be experienced in the ring when the act was on. And if it had to be given a name, as if it were the most banal phenomenon in the world, it would probably be called magic.

Before Kolia could mount the sketch in which he and Yulia would set fire to an oil drum full of books, he needed permission. The circus management wanted to know what type of books would be burned and why. Kolia had commissioned a set designer from the theatre to create books with colourful hardback covers, containing blank pages that would feed the fire and make it last. Employing the taciturn style he had learned from Pavel, he explained that the books would be “blanks” and that the two clowns would warm themselves around the drum as they burned. As usual, management demanded to see the sketch before they would authorize it. The director decided that he could burn exercise books, but not books. They suggested that a bucket of water be poured on the fire from a great height, not only to extinguish it rapidly, but to leave the two clowns soaking wet, thereby providing the requisite comic element. Kolia flatly refused. The idea was an unforgiveable cliché used by clowns in American circuses. He was reminded that burning books was morally and politically questionable, and Kolia replied that the books he would burn hadn’t been written yet. When asked why he wanted to do this, Kolia answered simply, “Because.” He turned on his heels, convinced of the power he now held, and walked out of the office, his costume under his arm, and his makeup kit in hand.

That year, images of Gorbachev, with his birthmark stealthily erased, began to appear in official photographs released to the media, and in propaganda. Walls plastered with posters of Madonna and New Order would soon be giving him a run for his money.

Excerpt from: Kolia by Perrine Leblanc. © Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 2011. English translation copyright © by David Scott Hamilton. Reprinted by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc.

Perrine Leblanc was born in Montreal in 1980. Her first novel, published under the title L’homme blanc in Quebec and Kolia in France, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for French Fiction, the Grand prix du livre de Montréal and Le Combat des livres de Radio-Canada (French iteration of CBC's Canada Reads). She lives in Montreal, Quebec.

Photo credit: Julie Artacho

Do you read French? If so, read Perrine Leblanc's original BloodLines' story "Le dragon" from the French series "Le Sang".


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