Out on a limb

White on Black

Ruben Gallego <em>John Murray, 160pp, £10</em>

ISBN 0719561361

Ruben Gallego was born in Moscow in 1968 without hands or feet. He was packed off to an orphanage, then later to an old people's home, where he was left to die. Somehow he survived. White on Black is his story. It won the Russian Booker Prize in 2003.

Nothing typified the Soviet Union so much as its treatment of the handicapped. Laziness, indifference and bureaucratic stupidity achieved what in Nazi Germany was the result of deliberate policy. Most of Gallego's fellow "non-ambulants" eventually perished of starvation and neglect, but not before enduring endless speeches "about the ultimate victory of communism, about our happy childhood". However, as elsewhere in Russia, the cruelty of the system was occasionally softened by individual kindnesses. Gallego fondly remembers some of his nurses or nyanyas, kind-hearted peasant women who gave him sweets and told him the truth, even if it was only that he was better off dead.

To survive such an upbringing, you had to be tough. Gallego recalls with envy how the boys would drink chifir, a vile amphetamine-like concentrate of black tea, and pump iron with their extant limbs. He himself was too crippled to take part in these feats, so consoled himself with reading. He read about the Vikings and the kamikazes, about Cyrano de Bergerac and Pavka Korchagin. Literature became his weapon. "Slowly pressing the computer keys, I set down letter after letter. I'm painstakingly forging my own bayonet - my book." But literature, in the end, was no substitute for physical prowess. Gallego fondly recalls a drunken soldier mistaking him for a veteran of the Afghan war and calling him "brother". For a moment, he was an equal. It is a sad scene.

A book like this could never have been written by a product of the English care system. Gallego is hard and angry, but mercifully free of "issues". He does not rant about the system, he does not cut himself with knives, he is not paranoid or neurotic. In short, he has dignity. He is a human being, not a "problem case". Why is this? Is it because he never enjoyed the benefits of counselling, with its endless rehashing of grievances? Or is it because he always knew that if he did not help himself, no one else would help him? "I am a hero," he says. "If you don't have hands or feet, you're either a hero or dead." Horrible though Gallego's upbringing was, it left intact something that our far softer system of care succeeds in destroying.

However, Gallego offers no com- fort to devotees of Russian backwardness. His book concludes with a paean to America, with its electronic wheelchairs, elevators and ramps. Even McDonald's gets a friendly mention for meeting "world standards for barrier-free access". Gallego loves America for those very qualities that his fellow countrymen affect to despise. "Here everything is bought and sold. A terrible, cruel country. You can't count on compassion. But I had my fill of compassion back in Russia. I'm fine with ordinary business." The US has nothing to compare with the saintliness of Gallego's nyanyas, but neither does it have the conditions that make such saintliness necessary.

White on Black belongs to a distinctively Russian genre, with no exact equivalent in the west. It is not reportage, but neither is it fiction. Perhaps the best word for it would be "witness". It is divided up into a series of short stories, each recounting a single incident. These stories make no claim to historical truth. Their target is essential truth - pravda. They are icons of suffering and resilience, cruelty and kindness. This has nothing to do with "literature" in the western sense, with its omnivorous curiosity and surface polish, but it has a beauty of its own. Lovers of the later Tolstoy and of Solzhenitsyn will appreciate its value.

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