Thomas Hellman chose L'Homme Blanc as his fourth book in the series.
He says Perrine Leblanc is part of a new generation of Quebec writers who are free from the political and spiritual restrictions felt by their predecessors.
Listen to Thomas talking about the book:
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L'homme blanc, young author Perrine Leblanc's first novel, was published in 2010 to much critical acclaim.
The book won the Grand prix du livre de Montréal and the Governor General's Prize in 2011. It also won Combat des livres (the French-language equivalent of Canada Reads) and was published in France by the prestigious publisher "Gallimard".
On my way to CBC studios in Montreal to record this column, I ran into Perrine Leblanc on the street and she told me that her book was being translated and would be published in English Canada in 2013.
L'homme blanc tells the story of Kolia, born in 1937 in one of Stalin's prisons in the Gulag. The novel begins with a description of Kolia's childhood and adolescence and his difficult life in the prison camps. Kolia will be saved by another prisoner, Iossif, who befriends him and teaches him how to read and write and also to think critically. Kolia's survival in the camps will be very much thanks to Iossif's help.
This is very much a book about friendship. Just before the prison is shut down and the inmates released, Iossif will mysteriously disappear. Kolia's search for Iossif will become one of the driving forces behind the book. Upon being freed, he will begin a long journey across Soviet Russia to Moscow where he will get in touch with Iossif's sister.
Kolia will begin working as a labourer and, with one thing leading to another, he will meet circus performers and become a clown, with his face painted white (hence the title, "L'homme blanc"). He will also perfect the art of pickpocketing.
The story follows Kolia through most of his life, which covers a substantial part of the history of the USSR. This is one of the strongest aspects of the book: it reconstructs how life would have been experienced in Russia from the inside.
This is interesting because the USSR remains a big mystery for many of us: the great unknown enemy of the Cold War, the very embodiment of evil according to the propaganda to which we were subjected at the time.
The fictional story of Kolia is tied in with real elements from Soviet history. For example, when Kolia gets on a bus, he is frightened by a man pointing a strange contraption at him. The machine is a camera and the man is Henri Cartier Bresson who in fact did go to Moscow to take pictures of the people at that time.
This book is a testimony to the power of fiction. This is not textbook history. The book constructs the fictional history of one individual, the kind of person who disappears into a crowd, like the millions and millions of faces that make up history but whose stories are never told. This becomes even more impressive when the reader learns that the writer has never been to Russia. The story was built on her imagination and extensive research, driven by a genuine passion for Russian history.
I chose this book because I wanted to give the CBC audience a sense of how remarkably creative and dynamic the young literary scene is in Quebec.
Perrine Leblanc published her book with a young independent relatively new publishing house called Le Quartanier, which is one of many new small publishers contributing to the dynamism of the scene here. Perrine is part of a generation of very creative young authors (probably a majority of them women), all in their thirties, who are redefining our literary scene.
Categories: 10 Essential Books
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