Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ruben Gallego's sub-human world

I've just finished one of the most curious books I've read in a long time: the Russian writer Ruben Gallego's memoir White on Black.

Gallego was born with cerebral palsy - a kind of brain damage that severely affects control of one's motor movements. His grandfather, a high functionary of the Spanish Communist Party, was aghast at his condition and left him to a state orphanage, telling Ruben's mother that her son had died.

Gallego thus grew up in a series of Soviet orphanages thinking that he was an orphan. "At eight," he writes, "I understood one very simple idea: I'm alone and nobody needs me." In the orphanage Gallego and other disabled children like him found themselves inhabiting a realm (as is often the case with cripples and invalids) in which they were only dubiously human - not very far short of freaks. Sometimes teachers from a training institute would come to visit them as part of their exercises, and the boy Ruben would note their "bugged-out eyes and poorly concealed disgust".

Circumstances at the children's home were desperately straitened - in an early chapter Gallego movingly describes having to crawl to the toilet at night because the attendants wouldn't hear his cries. Gallego often uses the present tense for greater immediacy. Here (in Marian Schwartz's fluent translation) he describes a surprise encounter with another human being:

They've moved me to another children's home. I'm crawling down the hallway and an attendant is walking towards me. It's dark in the hall, and she doesn't notice me right away. When she gets very close, she suddenly shrieks and jumps back. Then she comes closer and bends down to get a better look at me. I have swarthy skin, and my head is shaved. At first glance, in the dim light of the hallway, all you can see are my eyes, my big eyes, hanging in the air fifteen centimeters off the floor.
[…]
She walks away. She comes back a couple of minutes later and puts a piece of bread and lard on the floor in front of me. This is the first lard I've ever seen in my life, which is why I eat the lard first and then the bread. Suddenly I feel all warm and cozy, and I drift off to sleep.
There is a phantasmagorical quality about this passage that is reminiscent of Kafka, especially the scene in his famous story "The Metamorphosis" in which the protagonist Gregor Samsa, who has suddenly and unaccountably turned into a large insect and is locked up inside his room by his family, is brought food by his sister not on a plate, but - as if in accordance with his changed status, the fact that he is no longer recognizably human - "all spread out on an old newspaper".

But we also see in this passage how Gallego, from constant exposure to people's reactions to his physical appearance, has developed a capacity for visualising, as if from outside, what he himself looks like, for giving an account of his own strangeness: "At first glance, in the dim light of the hallway, all you can see are my eyes, my big eyes, hanging in the air fifteen centimeters off the floor." It is as if the boy has learnt to see himself just as society sees him. And that detail about finding on the floor in front of him "the first lard I've ever seen in my life, which is why I eat the lard first and then the bread" - it breaks one's heart to hear such things. In fact one might say that Gallego has presented here an ironic parody of a traditional human encounter with a dog, in which one is charmed by the melting brown eyes of the animal and puts a biscuit on the floor for it to eat.

But Gallego's memoir never lapes into self-pity - although he tells us often that he cried at this or that point in his life, in the narration itself he is never crying. In fact, his prose is often beautifully poised at a location that combines bloody-mindedness, bitter irony, lyricism, and quiet pathos. After he passed out from school he became ineligible to stay on in the children's home, and was sent instead, perplexingly, to an old people's home, where death was almost a daily affair. In another unusual and moving passage, he writes about seasonal and gendered patterns of mortality at the home:

The old women liked to die in spring. People died in all seasons, in a steady trickle, but most of all they died in the spring. In the spring it got warmer in the wards, in the spring they opened the doors and windows, letting fresh air into the stuffy world of the old folks' home. Life got better in the spring. All winter the old women clung stubbornly to life, waiting for spring so they could let go and surrender to the will of nature and die in peace. There were far fewer old men in the home. The old men died without regard for seasonal changes. If life refused to tempt them with a bottle of vodka or a tasty snack, they went to the next world without a fight.
Like Primo Levi's accounts of his years in a Nazi concentration camp, or the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet's poems about life in prison, Gallego's account of life in a stripped-down, attenuated universe forces us to inspect our own lives, our very human-ness, and all those other things which we take for granted.

But to end on a lighter note (and also to take advantage of a lovely bit of serendipity), let me quote to you a joke from Robert Chandler's introduction to his translation of the Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov's novel The Railway, which I just received two days ago. In it Chandler speaks of all the children in twentieth-century USSR whose parents were killed in Stalin's bloodthirsty purges and who were brought up in children's homes. He writes of how in these homes there was a sense "encouraged by Soviet children's literature, that orphanhood was the ideal state; an orphan's father was Stalin, his or her grandfather was Lenin, and there was no rival father whose influence might corrupt". But some children didn't quite take to this parenthood by the nation. The joke goes:


A teacher asks children in his class what they want to be when they grow up. First child: "Russia is my mother, Lenin is my father; I want to be an engineer." Second child: "Russia is my mother, Lenin is my father; I want to be a nurse." Third child: "Russia is my mother, Lenin is my father; I want to be an army officer." Fourth child: "Russia is my mother, Lenin is my father; I want to be an orphan."
Chandler discusses some of the pleasures and problems of translation in a very good interview here on the excellent literary blog ReadySteadyBook. And you might also want to read this essay by John Banville, last year's Booker Prize winner, on Kafka, which begins with the arresting line: "The question has been asked: was Kafka human?"

7 comments:

confused said...

As you said ''Gallego and other disabled children like him found themselves inhabiting a realm (as is often the case with cripples and invalids) in which they were only dubiously human''. I wonder where they get their humanism from, how despite all their personal tribulations, they still seem to be able to connect with the rest of us despite never seemingly trying to provoke pity.

Is it because in them, we recongise our own selfish self as to how we have treated them? I mean despite all their efforts, are we still taking pity on them even without ever wanting to?

I hope I am making some sense.

btw, you promised something else in your previous post. I await that. Readers you know, can be very demanding!!!!

swar said...

"all you can see are my eyes, my big eyes, hanging in the air fifteen centimeters off the floor." - the moment i read this, tom&jerry struck my mind. one of those most familiar scenes where only tom's eyes, huge and bright in the dark, would be hanging on the screen. then i wondered if any actor's eyes have been shown like tom's in any movies. more often than not, its always the animals'.

loved the last passage on old women dying.

unrelated to the post - i am reading altaf tyrewalla's "no god in sight". don't you think its more like a film script than a book?

Chandrahas said...

Confused - there are some good thoughts there. You ask if "despite all the efforts [of people like Gallego], are we still taking pity on them even without ever wanting to?" That may be so, but that small residue of pity is unavoidable; there's not much point feeling too worried or too bad about it. One may feel pity without the other party trying to provoke it, and the other party may even (and with some justification) feel insulted by this, but these kinds of misunderstandings are all too common in human relations, and not limited only to dealings between the able-bodied and the disabled.

What had I promised in a previous post? I can't remember.

And Bem - Tyrewala's book is like a film script, I suppose, in that the chapters are relatively short and the action keeps changing from one set of characters to another. I suppose an actual film that's similar to it in structure is the recent *Crash*, and perhaps it's worth pursuing that parallel, because Tyrewala (despite not intruding with his authorial voice) illuminates his characters with a fullness that's totally missing in *Crash*. (The film has in general got excellent reviews, and that opinion was backed by at the Oscars, but a sense of what I'm trying to say about it is presented more fully in a piece by Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Times [http://www.calendarlive.com/movies/chocano/cl-et-crash6may06,0,6200670.story?coll=cl-chocano]).

So, to sum up, the format Tyrewala has chosen doesn't allow for much narratorial comment, which is of couse one of the things that distinguishes the novel or story from drama. But to my mind none of these things feel like omissions. The book works perfectly well without these things - and might even have been a clunkier piece of work had Tyrewala chosen to write it in a more traditional manner.

confused said...

The subtext of my comment was that, because of this pity(highly unavoidable, I admit) do we see humanism and concern where none exists? I cannot comment on this particluar book because I have not read it, but so many time I feel when we watch a poignant scene in a movie, it evokes emotions not because we actually feel them but bcause we are supposed to feel them. Many times I guess it happens subconsciously. Just a random thought.

Yes and you promised this...

''It's interesting that you make that remark, because my next piece is going to be about the Spanish novelist Javier Marias, who's just published a book called Written Lives in which he analyses writers as they appaear in their photograph'', from your comment on the Manto piece.

No offense intended, just a friendly reminder. I hope if you get around to writing it, it will have something about Kafka. John Banville's essay mentions different looks of the man, I wonder what kind of look he had when he wrote ''The Metamorphosis.''

And yes, I really appreciate you giving all these links. They are very helpful.

regards

confused said...

And yes more on Kafka...

http://www.kafka.org/

Chandrahas said...

Ah yes, I remember that now. I'll be putting that piece on Marias up tomorrow or the day after to coincide with its publication in the Indian Express. It was supposed to appear last weekend, which is why I made that promise then.

hype_hippie said...

At first, he spent one and a half year with his mother. Then, when he survived after the terrible separation something happened that I can only explain by an example. In Russia, people who sold singing birds, would catch a bird, break a leg and cure it. After that the bird would survive and sing much better than a free bird. Plus, the bird was able to survive in a tiny cage.

When Ruben Gallego was asked in an interview if all what he wrote was true, he answered:"Sure, it´s true. It´s more than true"

He has written a second book, "Chess". It has been already publlished in Spanish (Alfaguara) and is in the process of being translated in Italy and Poland.