Kolia’s story begins in a barren labour camp in Eastern Siberia in the late 1930s. Never knowing his father, and separated from his mother at an early age, Kolia’s fortunes are made slightly better thanks to Josef, a prisoner from Western Europe who teaches him French, Russian, and calculus – as well as how to survive in such a hellish place – before he, like most prisoners, disappears. The most important lessons Kolia learns from Josef are never to eat all his rations, to train his body to deal with hunger, and to keep his needs lean. These lessons are a perfect metaphor for his eventual approach to survival: when you need nothing, nothing can be taken from you.
Once Stalin dies, the Gulag camps are dissolved. Kolia wins the approval of the master clown in a Russian circus, joins the troupe, and eventually achieves a kind of B-list celebrity. Becoming a clown doesn’t amount to a clumsy overlay of irony (on the part of Kolia or his creator), but rather demonstrates the strength of his spirit. When Glasnost comes, things change, not necessarily for the better. Kolia finds himself on the wrong side of the law when he takes his stage skills to the street.
Perinne LeBlanc’s novel, which won a Governor General’s Literary Award in its original French, is about the tenacity of the human spirit and the will to survive. Kolia could be set in post-revolutionary Cuba or in Egypt today – anywhere, in fact, where the old system has fallen away, resulting in a sense of displacement.
Works of literary fiction aren’t always page-turners, but Kolia definitely is. One gobbles it up, breathless to find out what happens next. Its cumulative power asserts itself only later, in aftershocks.