People care desperately about courage. For once, I am one of the people.
Do you want to know what it means to care desperately? It means that I am prepared to give up dignity, talent and generosity for the attribute of courage. When I fantasise about what people will say after my death, I know what I want them to recall—whatever her flaws (too numerous to mention), she certainly had guts. Yet the courage I conjure up in my fantasies exists outside of the extremes of violence, endurance and fear. It is not primarily a virtuous ideal or an idea, but rather an expression of the human spirit—messy, explosive and morally ambivalent.
This book is about courage minus the visionaries and martyrs, the survivors and whistleblowers. There will be no fearless warriors, visionary leaders or selfless nuns waiting for you on the pages to come; one or two may make a cameo experience, but that will be the extent of it. This book is about the ideas and practices of courage stripped from all the rhetorical ‘bling’, about moral and intellectual courage that does not fit into an inspirational story.
Some not very kind people at home called ours ‘the sausage migration’. The Russian Jews leaving the Soviet Union in the late 1980s post Gorbachev’s reforms were, they said, moving up the food chain, escaping to the world of plenty. We were migrants without a cause, in pursuit of nothing more than material freedom; chasing sausages, if you like. There were other equally ungenerous statements made in our direction, most more or less comparing us to rats fleeing a sinking ship, the first ones onto the dry shore.
Not long before we left in December 1989 I got slapped with the rat insult. Somewhat unexpectedly, it came from the mouth of a young man I knew well, one-third of the gloriously gifted and didactic triplets known to their friends simply as ‘the Brothers’. From the tender age of seven, the Brothers and I spewed forth poetry together at the same literary club based at Kharkov’s Palace of Pioneers. I cannot tell you with conviction if the boys were any good, but I was definitely hopeless. The proof is in the pages of overwritten, try-hard poems that recently fell out of my teenage diary.
I cannot remember which of the Brothers it was who saw me walking around, immersed in my Walkman. Whoever it was, he pulled one earphone out to hear what sort of music I seemed so lost in, got an earful of an explanation about the number of consonants in the English language, and understood just about everything in that very instant. In preparation for our unadvertised departure, we were studying English like mad, day and night. Our friends, who were already in Australia and thus painfully capable of assessing the hopelessness of their language endowments, would scream down the phone receiver at least once a week, Eat with an English teacher, sleep with an English teacher, go to the toilet with an English teacher.
I do not doubt that the Brother spoke more in jest than in judgement, but by that stage all the rat stuff was very familiar and so was the snake brew that would generally inspire it. The brew could contain just about everything—envy, patriotism, bitterness, idealism, self-deprecation and, last but never least, good hearty anti-Semitism. Not the stuff of pogroms, but plain, no-frills anti-Semitism with its vision of Jews and their hidden pots of gold and their hidden plots of greener pastures. Just a few years after my family’s desertion, the Brothers’ half-Jewish family fled the ship too, escaping to Israel—another mighty and arguably no less leaking vessel.
You would think that we had received enough insults, let these people be, but we should not forget those delivered by Anna Marie, the proprietor of a small guesthouse in a tiny town on the border of Austria and what was still, in the winter of 1990, Czechoslovakia. It was to her guesthouse that a bunch of clueless migrants, my parents, my sister and I included, were allocated on our arrival. It was Anna Marie who, after a few days of mutually unhappy cohabitation, presented us with a poster in big bold letters that read, ‘THIS IS NOT HORSES STABLE’, meaning this is not a pigsty, clean up your shit, you dirty revolting Eastern Europeans. This was addressed to all of us, of course, including my mother, who is the tidiest person, in a non-pathological sense, I have ever known. For Anna Marie, we were all Russiche swine contaminating her pretty, clean guesthouse with our endless suitcases, ugly foreign words always spoken too loudly, foul smells and desperation, to say nothing about those nasty migrant habits of, say, playing chess and drinking vodka (not necessarily at the same time). There were only thirty of us in all, but to her we were wild hordes from the East—pillaging, vandalising, threatening the very fabric of her existence. Of course, if you decided to compare, just for the hell of it, Anna Marie’s level of education and cultural development with ours, it was our Austrian hostess who was likely to emerge as a wild Tartar, a barbarian on the loose. But we were migrants, which meant that there would be no comparison. Anna Marie knew beyond any reasonable doubt who we were and where we belonged.
And so a rather sad picture emerges. We were rats in search of sausage havens and half-horses, half-pigs (if you take Anna-Marie’s word for it) but never eagles or something magnificent or noble. We rolled in our shit, never soared high in the atmosphere. This is symptomatic. Take all the classical, noble stories of exile—there are no rats in them. Proud and defiant lions are driven away from their rightful domains. Schools of fish are made to move upstream or disperse altogether, but rats, they are in a different category. They may be consummate survivors but, as a rule, the rat’s ability to endure inspires deep contempt or, worse still, a measure of disgust. During my not infrequent moments of self-righteousness, I wonder how one of the most gruelling and confronting experiences a human being can live through can be treated with such easy contempt and made to seem obscenely trivial, even cowardly. I am always amazed by people who feel entitled to separate the wheat from the chaff—labour with an oepidural: coward; grieving the death of a partner for too long: sissy; leaving a country in crisis: traitor.
To Anna Marie and all the good citizens of Western Europe who felt distinctly squeamish and unsettled when the floodgates of Eastern Europe were opened with a bang at the end of 1989, and who, in turn, are not so dissimilar to all the Australians on permanent stand-by for an imminent Asian invasion, I am really sorry. You find a gorgeous, serene meadow abundant with berries and sun, a pristine picnic place that is all yours, hallelujah. And then, all of a sudden, a huge crowd descends on your oasis, bringing with them two-dollar paper cups and trance music and leaving behind a trail of still smouldering cigarette butts, and that’s it—the fairytale is over. Your picnic place is now just like any other dump down the road, and it is undeniably sad, infuriating even. You may understand that these uncouth people had nowhere to go, you may even believe that they, just like you, ultimately have the same picnic rights, but why, oh why, did they have to choose your blessed little place?
I am a hero. Being a hero is easy. If you don’t have either arms or legs, you are either a hero or dead. If you don’t have parents, you have to rely on your arms and legs. And you have to be a hero. If you have neither arms nor legs, and you, on top of everything else, managed to come to this world as an orphan—that’s it. You are doomed to be a hero for the rest of your days. Or you die. I am a hero. I simply do not have a choice.
This is a small boy speaking, or rather a young man channeling that small boy, born with his arms and legs twisted so much that all he could do in a universe with no wheelchairs was to crawl. Crawl his way through a myriad of Soviet orphanages and old people’s homes once he was over fifteen, as befits a goner with cerebral palsy and an Hispanic name that sounds wilder than wild in the Soviet Union—Ruben David Gonsales Gallego. To write, the young man is using the only two fingers that work. Maybe those who speak of heroism as an exalted achievement of spirit and flesh simply have too many fingers with which to write. For Gallego, heroism is a simple necessity, a no-brainer for anyone with half a brain.
Until the age of six, Ruben Gallego dreamed non-stop about his mother, but then a kindly attendant at one of the orphanages explained to him that his mother was a black-assed bitch who had abandoned him. Unlike teachers, attendants did not lie. They were the only ones you could rely on to make any sense. ‘Black-assed’ was a much bigger insult than ‘bitch’. It encompassed the whole barbaric universe from the Caucasus to Africa. There, Ruben was told, people were like baboons, disposing of their offspring as they would of banana peels, their bare asses high in the air.
From that time Ruben could not dream about his mother anymore. Instead, he dreamed of being able to walk, because the ones around him who could pull themselves up on their crutches and drag themselves even a few steps were treated far better than the crawlers like him. It was not entirely inconceivable that the walkers could even have a future, be part of the world. Ruben went on like that for a while and then, at the age of eight, it dawned upon him that he would never ever be able to walk. And so without further ado Ruben David Gonsales Gallego launched himself into dreams of being a kamikaze, a precision torpedo filled with explosives.
Ruben is crawling down the hallway of a new children’s home he has just been moved to. It is dark in the hall and an attendant walking along the hall does not notice him at first. When she does, she shrieks and jumps back. Then she takes a few steps towards Ruben to have a good look at the boy. “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.”
What does it take for the able-bodied to imagine being reduced to their eyes only, big unblinking eyes hanging still in the air?
Despite all his institutionalised years, Ruben Gallego was never really an orphan. His father was a Venezuelan student activist, once upon a time a dealer of ideals, and then, if you believe the internet, of quality drugs. His mother was a daughter of the Secretary General of the Spanish Communist Party. The two met in Moscow. Their romance, and the ensuing pregnancy, was anything but blessed by the young woman’s parents. Ruben’s twin died minutes after birth. The mother, apparently, was told that Ruben was dead too. This was technically true, of course, just a bit optimistic. As a dark-skinned, cerebral palsy-suffering ward of the Soviet state, Gallego was not supposed to be undead for long. Ruben did not meet his mother until he was a grown man. By that time, he was free from the state if not from palsy, twice-married and twice a father.
However, this part of Gallego’s story falls outside his memoir of childhood and adolescence. (White on Black, by the way, became a runaway success, a recipient of the Russian Booker Prize and translated into many languages, including English.) Inside the book is something else—a story of staying alive. Of the courage people need not to die before their death. When Ruben reads The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, he is astonished by all the fuss about D’Artagnan. ‘D’Artagnan is a hero? What kind of a hero is he, if he has arms and legs? He had everything—youth, health, beauty, a sword and fencing ability. Where is the heroism?’ Ruben prefers Quasimodo to the pretty musketeer. ‘People looked at him with disgust and pity like they do at me. But he had arms and legs. He had the entire Notre Dame.’ You would not dare feel either disgust or pity for Ruben. He himself seems incapable of feeling them, not for the armless and legless boys and girls around him, not for the two-armed and two-legged adults running the show.
A kindly maths teacher gives Gallego a massive catch-up lesson, and her look becomes ‘cold and distant’ when she sees Ruben’s perfectly executed maths test. Ruben understands instantly this transformation. When you are a moron, it is easy to know you because it is easy to ignore you. But once in a while because of their natural kindness or professional necessity people with arms and legs discover that you, the moron, are just like them inside. ‘In an instant, their indifference is replaced by admiration, and then admiration turns into deep despair confronted by reality.’ And then their eyes turn inwards and they switch off.
Switching off, as is well known, is a natural reflex, a mechanism of survival. Computers and toasters switch off from overload, so why can’t we? But there is something about Ruben Gallego that makes it hard to switch off. Not because he is some sort of towering moral presence but because just the opposite is true. He is devoid of accusations and bitterness although, God knows, he has things and people to point fingers at. The boy then, the man now, does not have the self-effacing attitude of a saint in the making; what he has instead is a love of life, so pure and complete it takes your breath away.
Gallego calls himself a hero. We are not used to that. Heroes deny being heroes. I was simply doing my job, they say. Anyone else would do the same in my place, they add, aflame with modesty. It is up to others to label them a hero, to celebrate and set them apart from mere mortals. Ruben calls himself a hero from the very start, yet there is not a drop of vanity or self-importance in his words because for him there is nothing heroic in being a hero. Heroism is one mother of a cross to bear; it is not the pinnacle of being human, but humanity’s putrid underbelly.
I had no idea about the intense physicality of the writing process. You assume you’re dealing with a variation of an office job, a classical sedentary occupation complete with a desk, a chair, piles of paper and the inevitable computer. You allow for psychological strain, of course, but hardly for the immense physical exertion. Writing a book, especially your first one, is more like taking part in the Marathon Des Sables, an endurance race across the Sahara Desert, than completing a protracted and complex mental task. Traumascapes certainly felt like an endurance race. My whole body was dragged into writing, made to work daily. And so it did—getting sick, vomiting, breaking into fever and, more than a few times, collapsing altogether. Perhaps this was the nature of my obsession, which demanded that my entire person be put at the service of this book, that no part of me remain safe or unaffected. Soon enough, writing became inseparable from the continuous process of pushing myself to extremes. I could not write gently, calmly or rationally. Unless I was within striking distance of mental and physical exhaustion, it just did not feel right, I did not feel as though I was doing my job.
At the same time, writing Traumascapes was a gradual process of shutting out the world, of leaving an increasing percentage of my phone calls and emails unanswered, of disappointing and infuriating the people I loved, of being a bad everything—daughter, mother, friend … It was impossible to be good and finish this book, to be part of the world and finish this book, to see movies, have drinks, read books and finish this book. I experimented a great deal with sleep deprivation, once going for seven days with less than eight hours of sleep overall and eventually losing all sense of time. The final stages of writing, in particular, were simply incompatible with leading a normal life.
Everywhere on earth, places with a high concentration of people who take themselves seriously emit a particular kind of toxicity. Melbourne Uni is like a toxic dump. An aesthetically pleasing kind of dump, it must be said, buttressed by history and, of course, extra rich in the success stories of its graduates. It is not Cambridge or Columbia, but graduating from it has not hurt anyone yet.
In my considerable naivety, I thought that at least in the beginning all new students would feel equally out of their element, that for most of us the first year would be like a large fire, in which our old ways of doing and being would swiftly turn to ash. The place around me, however, is a triumph of the familiar. So many people, it seems, have managed to bypass completely the conflagration I imagined as a kind of compulsory initiation rite, smuggling in their entire friendship circles, their arrogance and their parents’ connections, their social know-how and ideological grooming. No wonder the university so often looks like a logical extension of their pub crawls and dinner parties, their school debating societies and student newspapers. They have not been here before but it is unmistakably their place. And therefore, never, not for a moment, mine.
University life in the early 1990s, the little fragment I get to see, seems to me starkly devoid of real friction, of the punch and the slap, to say nothing of a feverish insomnia that the right kind of learning and thinking should have no difficulty inducing. The university’s pockets of disquiet—a sexual harassment suit here, a student protest there—only strengthen my overall impression of a well-oiled, well-managed mechanism. Sometimes, as I walk past the lush, silky lawns where undergraduates recline at all hours of the day, my surroundings feel like a sanatorium, a place that propels one towards being, in the yet to be uttered words of John Howard, ‘relaxed and comfortable’. Where are all the tense and uncomfortable people? remains an unanswered question in my first few years at the university, during which I make no real, or even imagined, friends.