White on Black, by Ruben Gallego

whiteonblackcoverWhite on Black
By Ruben Gallego

Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz

Harcourt, 2006; paperback ed., 2007

Winner of the Soeurette Diehl Frasier Translation Award, Texas Institute of Letters, 2007

This is an extraordinary personal testament, the story of one boy's triumph in the face of impossible obstacles. Born with cerebral palsy in Moscow, Ruben Gallego was hidden away in Soviet state institutions by his maternal grandfather, the secretary general of the Spanish Communist Party in the 1960s. His was a boyhood spent in orphanages, hospitals, and old-age homes, a life of emotional deprivation and loss of human dignity. And yet, there is no self-pity here, no bitterness, only an unfailing regard for the truth. Gallego's story is one of neglect and mistreatment but also of shared small pleasures, of courage, of the power of the human will, and of a child's growing fascination with books and the worlds he finds in them. Winner of the 2003 Russian Booker Prize, White on Black is "one of those rare books one can call revolutionary" (Corriere della Sera, January 8, 2006).

Praise for the Translation

"White on Black captures a grim side of the Soviet workers' paradise: the thousands of children classified as physically or mentally disabled and locked away from public view. Winner of the 2003 Russian Booker Prize for best novel, this semi-fictionalized memoir now appears in Marian Schwartz's faithful translation."  — Rebecca Reich, Washington Post

"Marian Schwartz's lucent translation preserves Gallego's unique mix of fury and bittersweet laughter— one part perennial child, one part old man, an uncanny facsimile of the orphanages and old-age homes where he lived—and she admirably resists the impulse to clarify Gallego, either in the text or with footnotes. It's a rare, bold case of valuing craft above sales, and even above readers." — Boris Fishman, Words Without Borders

Reviews

 

Washington Post

In the Soviet Union, according to its 1936 Constitution, unemployment did not officially exist: "Work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen according to the principle, 'He who does not work shall not eat.' " The new Soviet man was to be broad of chest and square of jaw, tireless in his dedication to the country's welfare. Set him a work quota, and he'd double it. Double his quota, and he'd flex his muscles and double it again.

Ruben Gallego could use only two of his fingers. Born in 1968 with cerebral palsy and abandoned to the Soviet orphanage system, he got around, for lack of a wheelchair, by pulling himself along the floor, as does the main character bearing his name in the jarring opening vignette of White on Black. "I was a better student than anyone," the narrator makes a point of mentioning. Unfortunately, his brainpower doesn't mean much to the caretakers who carry him to the toilet. "You say he's smart," one of them observes, "but he can't walk!"

White on Black captures a grim side of the Soviet workers' paradise: the thousands of children classified as physically or mentally disabled and locked away from public view. Winner of the 2003 Russian Booker Prize for best novel, this semi-fictionalized memoir now appears in Marian Schwartz's faithful translation. "My heroes are collective images from the endless kaleidoscope of my endless children's homes," Gallego asserts at the start. "What I write, though, is the truth." Paradoxically, under communism, truth was a realm unofficially ceded to writers of fiction, since facts were so often hedged or bent by politics. In White on Black, fiction similarly provides a truth-telling veneer to Gallego's straightforward if sometimes too convenient arrangement of facts — a way of getting at the essential reality. — Rebecca Reich

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