Skip to main content

Kolia by Perrine Leblanc. Winner of the Governor General's Literary Award.

This is a story of a boy born in a Siberian Gulag in 1937. If someone were quick to judge, the story paints a picture of a life doomed. However, Kolia somehow manages to receive advantage over advantage to not only survive the miseries of some the harshest tragedies of the Soviet prison system, but also is able to rise to the ranks of an acclaimed circus clown in Moscow.

In the labour camp in eastern Siberia, Iosif, a prisoner from Western Europe, teaches Kolia the basic knowledge for survival in the harsh environment of the Gulag, in addition to other practical lessons in Calculus, Russian and French. 

One of my favourite exerts from the book:
“Kolia regularly repeated what Iosif had told him to buoy up his spirits in the camp. Appear to be weaker than your aggressor. Breathe slower than your enemy. Eat only two meals a day to train your body to withstand hunger. Sleep less. Think more. Read everything you can and anything you want to. But above all, constantly question what others tell you, even books, even Victor Hugo. Even me.”

From scrubbing toilets in prison to finding a break when Stalin’s death leads to his fortune as being one of the first group of liberated prisoners, Kolia is able to plough ahead and make a life for himself.

His encounter with Pavel (a clown) leads him to an opportunity to audition for the Moscow State Circus. Kolia is a survivor and takes his disappointments in stride, never over indulging in past woes, but moving forward towards life’s unexpected adventures. Perhaps it is a lesson that author Perrine Leblanc is trying to convey.

The book was originally written in French by Perrine Leblanc and won the Governor General’s Literary Award, as well as Quebec’s Canada Reads. It is minimalist but with a deep takeaway. Destiny it seems cannot be predicted and life is often cruel. But we must make the most of it as we take each day in stride. 


3 out of 5 Sukasa Stars

Kolia is published by House of Anansi Press Inc.

Review by
@ShilpaRaikar for @SukasaReads (a division of @SukasaStyle

Shilpa Raikar is also creative strategist for Blink Advertising and contributes for