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Authors: Perrine Leblanc

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BOOK: Kolia
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Perrine Leblanc
Translated by David Scott Hamilton

© Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 2011
English translation copyright © 2013 by David Scott Hamilton

Published in Paris by Éditions Gallimard under the title
A first edition of this novel was published in 2010 by Éditions
Le Quartanier in Montreal, Canada, under the title
L'homme blanc

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and
retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

This edition published in 2013 by
House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801
Toronto, ON, M5V 2K
Tel. 416-363-4343
Fax 416-363-1017

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Leblanc, Perrine, 1980–
[Homme blanc. English]

Kolia / Perrine Leblanc; translated by David Scott Hamilton.

Translation of: L'homme blanc.
Issued in print and electronic formats.

ISBN 978-1-77089-219-4 (pbk.).—ISBN 978-1-77089-220-0 (html)

I. Hamilton, David Scott, 1957–, translator II. Title. III. Title: Homme blanc. English

PS8623.E354H6513 2013 C843'.6 C2013-903546-X C2013-903547-8

Cover design: Marijke Friesen

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program
the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada, through the National Translation Program for Book Publishing, for our translation activities.

To my brothers

Don't make comparisons:
the living are incomparable.
Osip Mandelstam

The Voronezh Notebooks



the other prisoners that he started stealing at an age when children learned to read. It was his way of neatly summing up the beginnings of his art.

His name was Nikolai, but everyone called him
. In prison, after the implosion of the Soviet Union, he would discover that certain conditions inside the compounds endured unchanged. Men became beasts.

There are smells that lodge in the memory and linger on the skin. The stench of the camp shithouses and the foul odour of the dead bodies that were discovered in the spring trailed behind him into the free world. A body returning from the camps can never be clean.

Kolia came into the world in 1937 in a forced labour camp. He always preferred to withhold the full name of his birthplace, stating only that he had been born in the K Mountains of Siberia, which covers an expanse of roughly thirteen million square kilometres and is littered, here and there, with the cesspits of mass graves.

The use of hard labour as punishment dated back to the penal system of Imperial Russia, with its
, or prison farms. Stalin's camps picked up where these left off, as a means of isolating enemies of the state, populating an inhospitable territory and, so they would be seen as consistent with the socialist ideal, re-educating its non-compliant citizens. In the far north, the most common means of escape was death. The cold, the rations tied to productivity, the disease and frostbite which often meant the loss of a limb, and the aberrant sexuality of most of the young men defined the pale shadow of daily life in the village, an open prison composed of barracks.

Kolia knew little of the circumstances surrounding his birth in the camp infirmary. It is easy to imagine his mother crouched on her haunches, pulling him out of herself, covered in his own feces, to the indifference of the attending medical staff, themselves prisoners. She had not been allowed an abortion, even though the procedure was legal.

He bore the name Vladimirovich, which was given to him by a man who wasn't really his father. His real father was a civil servant who had raped his mother, but he would never discover this. Kolia lived initially with her in the women's barracks and then began the journey between their bed and the nursery. He was treated as unimportant but — because his
enjoyed certain privileges denied the others — he was given access to the essentials for his development. His “father” had been a schoolteacher and distrusted politics; his mother played piano and was a good singer. On the grounds of an anonymous denunciation, they had been deported first to a transit camp north of Moscow and then, still together, to the far east of the country.
Together —
that was luck. Her pregnancy and her musical talent meant that his mother was spared from heavy labour. Each week she would give a recital for the prison staff in the building that was home to the camp's Department of Culture and Education. The
may not have had their hearts in the right place, but on occasion, they showed good taste.

As a child, Kolia could often be found playing with a bowling ball that his mother had fashioned for him during the final month of the summer that preceded his birth. While she practised her singing and mended clothing belonging to the men that ran the camp, Kolia would study the ball and stroke its uneven surface, and came to know its every bump. He slept next to his mother and nursed as often as he could. Children born within the confines of the prison were to be separated from their mothers when they started walking — that is, if anybody bothered to teach them; otherwise they wound up crawling all the way to the pit of death that eventually awaited them. Kolia had the remarkable good fortune of remaining with his mother until she disappeared, which might explain how he learned to express himself with something other than primitive noises and to piss standing up like the men who lived around him.

A few weeks before his death in the camp at the age of forty, his father had weighed hardly more than the sum of his bones. Kolia was six years old and strong enough to carry the bowling ball in his arms. His father died of exhaustion, his mother had disappeared. A man who was neither his legal guardian, his biological parent or his nursery attendant told him the news. History has not retained his name, neither did Kolia. The man, who in no way resembled an apostle from the Bible, said only:

“Collect your things and follow me.”

Kolia was given an identification number but his status remained unclear — somewhere between a prisoner and a Soviet child. He was permitted to keep the bowling ball, his coarse blanket, as well as the one belonging to his mother, and the clothes he was wearing. The padded peacoat he was issued was two sizes too big for him, and though he rolled the sleeves up to his elbows, they would regularly fall into his soup. Between chores, he would suck at the hem of his sleeves to extract what little nourishment, or illusion of nourishment, they might conceal. He was transferred to a room in a barracks which he shared with other boys, none of whom had any hair. Prisoners were shaved with straight razors and black soap, and the hand that did the shaving always belonged to a fellow
. A shaved head is never smooth; it exposes scars, a misshapen skull, and the coarse tips of regenerating hair.

As soon as he walked into the barracks, which also bore a number, Kolia began staring at all the shorn heads and the scars inscribed on them with a scrutiny that made the others uneasy. He was quickly shaved to look like them — his mane of hair and prepubescent body had made him look more like a girl. Kolia immediately felt the intense cold on his bare scalp, and, in the absence of any mirrors, he examined his new look with his fingertips. He began to worry about the skin rashes that their woollen hats often caused and, that night, he slid under the bed of one of his bunkmates and stole his cotton cap. Cotton was always soft against his skin. He wore the cap from that point on, hidden beneath his woolly hat, to protect himself from the cold of the nuclear winters and the searing heat of hell.

In theory, he should have been sent to an orphanage outside the camp, but the closest town was too far away. He was more useful to them as a worker, not to mention the fact that he might reveal a talent for singing, like his mother. But Kolia sang out of tune. He could expect his morning plate of
, a bowl of soup for lunch and dinner, a small loaf of bread and some water. Occasionally, he would receive a little fish and sometimes even some dried meat. Up until the age of ten, Kolia was entrusted only with scrubbing toilets and emptying buckets of shit. Some inmates resented him for having it easy, and he was forced to give up his mother's blanket in exchange for some semblance of peace in the barracks. But Kolia was running out of luck — and in the camps, it was luck that took the place of God. The gang leader who had been threatening to beat him to death wanted more.

“Half your ration of bread.”

This declaration of war for his daily bread didn't surprise Kolia — nothing did. He stood his ground.

“The blanket but not the bread.”

Kolia was small, thin like everyone else, but his capacity to withstand cruelty and the harshness of the elements was surprising for a child born into the human rot of the camp, and it played in his favour when it came to his dealings with the others. The tough guy with the rotten teeth left him alone: stealing bread from another zek was a crime punishable by death, a sentence which they carried out among themselves. And when this same individual was eventually shot by firing squad for attempting a mad dash across the security perimeter — an act that was just plain suicidal — it was Kolia who retrieved his worn-out clothing. He had reached puberty.

From time to time — mainly in the summer when the workday was longer — he was asked to clean the room belonging to the doctor, an urbane man who lived in the camp with his family. This gave Kolia access to the library of a civil servant. He was fascinated by the typefaces he saw and would run his fingers over the text, inhaling the intoxicating odours coming from deep inside the books. He had no idea what he was touching. No one in the camp had ever thought of teaching him to read.


were woken by the clanging of a bell. Those who stubbornly clung to sleep received their morning salutation from a billy club belonging to one of the guards. The guards themselves were prisoners who had been selected to maintain order in the daily affairs of the camp — scum who had nothing but the foulest contempt for the enemies of the people, whom propaganda had reduced to the status of farm animals. The camp's population was made up of social outcasts, hard criminals, political dissidents, prisoners of war, and civil servants who had been arbitrarily ousted from their posts. Kolia belonged to none of these groups, although the political dissident category might well have included a subgroup for sons and daughters.

Those men who were considered viable — in other words, capable of working like mules — spent their days in the gold mines. The leaner ones who were still able-bodied were fed less and sent to cut down trees with the women or clear snow from the roads. The rest, who were at the end of their utility and slowly starving to death, were given minimal rations and quickly perished.

A checkpoint, soberly adorned with a slogan extolling the virtues of socialism and freedom through hard labour, had been positioned at the entrance to the camp. The prison itself was surrounded by barbed wire. The barracks, constructed of wood and stone by zeks who had long since died, offered little protection from the cold and noise — the constant sound of the wind whistling through the walls eventually drove some men crazy. The floors were made of dank boards that rotted in the places where men did their business during the night — those who were incontinent relieved themselves unabashedly in their beds, like hanged men unable to control the urge that took hold of them.

Within the first year of their arrival in the K Mountains, the majority of zeks who were penned together in this region of the Soviet Bloc would be dead. Somehow Kolia had always managed to avoid becoming a statistic. Conditions in the camp had improved somewhat since the end of the war — zeks worked fewer hours, although they still averaged ten hours a day. As he grew, Kolia's appetite increased, but his rations never improved. Hunger was added to the list of things that perpetrated violence on the body; the soul, for its part, was a fairy tale which no one had ever attempted to tell Kolia. It was far too complicated.

At the age of ten, he didn't sing or possess any particular talent. He was friendly but not a pushover; he had little to say and was considered a good worker. Unlike the other boys who were born in the camp, Kolia could express himself with words; he didn't need to scream or yell. He had also learned how to avoid provoking those around him. But keeping a low profile didn't always protect him from being struck by someone's fist — violence was part of his daily reality, as it was for the other undernourished weaklings with whom he lived. In prison, an inmate belongs to one of two camps: those who keep fighting and those who have given up. Kolia didn't want to die. He knew nothing of the world outside.

One night a man climbed into his bed. This had happened on several occasions when a prisoner was sick. Sharing a bed was commonplace during the winter, when lying alone against the frozen floorboards became unbearable. But this man was in good physical condition, not as thin as the others, and clean. In the barracks, even though the zeks were disinfected and shaved to control for lice and bedbugs, their bodies were never clean.

“We will sleep together from now on. My name is Iosif.”


“We'll talk tomorrow.”

Kolia had to pay attention to understand this man's Russian; it was grammatically correct, but he didn't roll his
's. The man was Swiss. He had a deep voice that revealed no signs of aggression. He organized his belongings, placing his warm clothing in a sack that he positioned at the head of the bed as his pillow. Kolia turned over and fell asleep with his back to the man, his knees tucked up to his chest.

Although he looked to be in his thirties, Iosif was actually twenty. He had inherited his father's short-sightedness and had to squint to make out a face that was more than two metres away. This had left him with deep crow's feet and pockets of wrinkles under his eyes. A swollen scar just above his upper lip was the result of a brawl. He was well built and good-looking, even though he stood a head shorter than the rest of the men in the barracks. He hadn't been classified as a foreigner.

When the bell rang the next morning, Iosif was already up and dressed, ready for his kasha. Kolia started pushing the bed back, pretending to return it to its correct position. He started unlacing his worn-out boots because, he told Iosif, the sole of his right foot was swollen and it was hurting him. He was dragging his feet. Iosif waited, anxious to get going.

“You're not cleaning anything this morning. Hurry up.”

“What do you want?”

“I've been asked to teach you to read.”

Kolia was almost winded with surprise and looked him up and down skeptically.

“In what language?”

“Your own.”

“But you speak funny.”

“You can't hear that when I write, Colin.”



Kolia slept in his clothes. He was never warm enough. During the day, he wore his blanket over his parka because he was afraid that someone would steal it from his bed, even though the extra weight slowed him down. He quickly threw on his parka, his blanket, his
, his gloves, and followed the man outside.
, he'd said.

They ate in silence. Kolia kept his head bowed over his breakfast, taking sneak peeks at the man across from him; Iosif found this amusing and let him be. Kolia waited for instructions from his
, a deported jewel thief who had been assigned the position of work-gang foreman. Normally, he would spend his mornings cleaning the toilets and the tubs that were used to soak and disinfect soiled laundry. Recently, after he had finished his lunch, he would be given revolting little chores in the camp clinic, like cleaning open sores and gangrenous limbs without so much as a protective glove. He would spend his evenings listening to the men talk about Moscow and recite poems while they smoked their low-grade tobacco. The smoke never completely camouflaged the pungent odour of their unwashed bodies nor the general stench of the place, but it did pacify the most violent prisoners for the duration of the evening.

The foreman walked straight up to Kolia and announced mechanically that things would be different from now on. He was going to learn to read. Starting today, he would spend his mornings learning to count and write in Russian; in the afternoons, he would go back to work cleaning the toilets. The foreman bluntly added that he was very lucky.

Once he had finished his plate of kasha and the morning siren had sounded, Kolia followed the Swiss man to a room that was heated, just barely, by a pot-bellied stove. A slate blackboard was fixed to the wall. There was no chalk. On a corresponding wall, a portrait. Kolia had seen the face of the man pictured in the frame in what passed for the camp newspaper. He asked Iosif who it was.

“Stalin,” Iosif replied.

An exercise book and two pencils on a small table, the whistling of the wind, the muted thud of a shovel, the short muffled sounds of someone shouting in the distance. He was alone with his teacher. In theory, a guard should have been standing outside the door, but one rarely showed up. They could speak more or less freely. A respite.

Kolia had long been ordered to speak only when he was given permission to do so; he wouldn't pick up a pencil unless he was told. Before sitting down, he waited for someone's authorization. He had learned to obey. When he did sit down, his back was curved and he stared at the floor. Sitting at attention was unknown to him. Iosif had noticed how the muscles at the back of Kolia's neck tightened and popped up whenever he was tense. He had also noticed the intelligence in his eyes.

As their classes evolved over the following year, Kolia would invariably come up with the right answer. And one morning Iosif decided that in addition to Russian, he would teach him French and the rudiments of calculus, as well as how to survive in the shithouses of the USSR.

“It's called ‘The Code of the Zek,' and you are going to learn it by heart.”

He then began teaching Kolia the rules that he had lived by since arriving in Siberia, rules the boy would adopt as the tenets of his own art of war:

  1. Eat less than your daily ration to accustom your body to hunger. Do not eat all of your bread in the morning. Keep what you don't eat in your pocket.
  2. Never give the extra bread to a thug or a bullyboy, but rather use it for trading. Make sure it's you that has the advantage.
  3. Remain inconspicuous. Only allow yourself to be noticed when you are stronger than your opponent and he is incapable of defeating you.
  4. As soon as you are able, start reading. Read anything, even the obscenities written on a wall. If you cannot read, recite something you have heard, something that comes from outside of you. Recite the meaningless snippets of conversation you overhear.
  5. Practise your French when you are cold or hungry. Conjugate a verb in French and repeat its declension in Russian. Always be ready to respond in either language.
  6. Imagine Moscow or Paris or Leningrad. Create these cities from what I have told you. Smell them, touch them. Don't forget this.
  7. Your mind is free. Think of anything you want to.
  8. Above all, question everything that is said to you. Practise doubt as a discipline.

Iosif did his best to describe the world he had known
extra muros
. They would sit beside the coal stove when the temperature dropped and the guards were obligated to light it. They talked and wrote. Iosif recited entire poems he had committed to memory, in both Russian and French, even clumsily acting out a few passages from
King Lear
as best he could. He also described his own country and the French provinces with which he had some familiarity.

Kolia learned to read and write Russian amidst the sounds of machine-gun fire, pickaxes, and the anonymous howls and shrieks coming from the other side of the wall. But even the hot-blooded language rising from his own belly was not enough to keep his fingers from turning numb in the cold. During the winter, he could tolerate his writing exercises for no more than five minutes at a time and then would place his hands over the stove to warm them. Looking out the only window, which he could barely get his head through, Kolia could see dead bodies, sometimes the bodies of men he knew. Over time, he no longer felt anything when confronted with the sight of the dead and the dying. The cold can paralyze limbs, but the death of others numbs all the senses. Kolia found himself missing his mother or at least the memory of some maternal figure, but the reality of the camp kept bringing him back to the present, to his most basic needs, driving him deeper inside himself. He became increasingly attached to Iosif, who continued his instruction at night, speaking to him in French from time to time, even though they faced the reprisals of the guards. Iosif explained how each language was a world unto itself and that speaking his own language allowed him to escape the boundless expanse of time that was life in the K Mountains. No one knew when he had arrived at the camp, nor did they know what it was that had brought him there.

The authority of the guards, the sentries, and those prisoners dispatched to tyrannize their comrades with batons, was rarely challenged. Officially, prisoners were to be treated according to a strict code of conduct. One night after returning from the mine where he had been beaten by a guard, a zek decided to take revenge on a fellow prisoner by denouncing him with accusations that he had made derogatory statements about the Ukraine. Shitting on another zek to show superiority, grinding a heel into those who were weaker, and watching them suffer was part and parcel of the caste system of the camp and a means of exacting some form of retribution for its daily hell. The guard grabbed the accused man by the back of his neck, which was nothing more than protruding vertebrae, and dragged him to the shit hole and plunged his head into it. Then he presented the zek's face, smeared with feces, to the informer.

“Lick him.”

By the age of twelve, Kolia had already witnessed similar scenes. The guard's name was Ousov, and he hadn't smoked since the previous day. It was imperative to find him some tobacco to calm him down.

“Lick his face.”

Ousov struck the zek in the shin and raised his voice. His Russian was crude. He noticed Kolia gesturing to Iosif with an imaginary cigarette and was about to grab hold of him in turn when Iosif interceded.

“I can get you tobacco by tomorrow night.”

The offer pacified the guard. He turned around and ordered the snitch to get on his knees.

“I said lick him.”

The snitch began to lick the other man's face and then suddenly vomited a spray of bile and started choking. Ousov struck his right ear with the back of his hand.

“Clean all that shit off his face.”

At night while the others slept, Kolia and Iosif continued to speak French under their breath, falling silent as soon as they heard the sound of approaching boots.

Over time Kolia began to understand that his mentor enjoyed the favour of a person of influence. Iosif always worked indoors and a little less than the others. He ate better and received mail written to him in French. To receive a letter at all was a rare occurrence. To receive one written in French which had not been censored by the hand of some unknown civil servant was unheard of. The sender was Iosif's sister, Tanya. She lived in Moscow with a man who was not her husband.

There were nights when Iosif would leave the barracks. Kolia played dead. He knew instinctively not to ask any questions. The next day, Iosif would return with a letter. Tanya's letters brought him news of the world and included transcriptions of poems written in French — some from works which had been officially sanctioned, others from books that circulated clandestinely. Kolia began to draw his French vocabulary from the texts of Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Villon, Hugo. With Cendrars, he journeyed across his own country for the first time.

BOOK: Kolia
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