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.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".
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.
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?"