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booker winner beats the odds

Published: December 11, 2003 (Issue # 927)

  • "White On Black" draws on Gonzales Gallego's childhood experiences.
    Photo: Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times

A Russian resident of Madrid was named winner of the 2003 Open Russia Booker Prize last week for his novel, "White on Black," published by St. Petersburg-based Limbus Press.

Paralyzed from birth, Ruben David Gonzales Gallego did not attend the ceremony last Thursday, but the $15,000 award guarantees him the publicity of Russia's most prestigious literary honor. Grandson of a general secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, Gallego grew up in a series of Soviet homes for the permanently disabled - a harrowing experience scrupulously detailed in the pages of his novel.

St. Petersburg poet and critic Tatyana Voltskaya called Gonzales Gallego's victory a rare combination of talent and remarkable life experience.

"Of course, someone might be tempted to say that the writer won primarily owing to exploitation of his sorrowful childhood and his being disabled," she said.

"But 'White on Black' is a piece of genuine art, when the writer is not playing with words for the sake of form or experiment."

The award ceremony came two months after the shortlist of six finalists was announced. Founded in 1991 by the prestigious British Booker Prize, the Russian Booker was hailed as the first independent literary award since 1917. Worldwide attention zeroed in on the winners, who have included Bulat Okudzhava, Ludmila Ulitskaya and, last year, Oleg Pavlov.

However, with the proliferation of literary prizes, many readers now look elsewhere for Russia's literary avant-garde. In 1997, the prize lost its British backing when it was taken over by a branch of the Smirnoff vodka company. In 2002, it was turned over to the Open Russia Foundation, a fund of Yukos shareholders headed by jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Of the six novels that made it to this year's shortlist, only two - Gonzales Gallego's novel and Leonid Yuzefovich's "Kazaroza" - initially appeared as books. The others - Yelena Chizhova's "Monastery," Afanasy Mamedov's "Frau Shram," Leonid Zorin's "Jupiter" and Natalia Galkina's "Villa Renault" - were printed in journals, a vestige of the Soviet literary industry that has not fared well since publishing took off in the 1990s.

Established in St. Petersburg 15 years ago, Limbus Press became Russia's first private publishing house after the downfall of the Soviet Union.

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Friday, Jan. 30 through Wednesday, Feb. 4

A retrospective of the films of Roman Polanski starts today at Loft-Project Etagi, 74 Ligovsky Prospekt, with a screening of ‘Repulsion’ at 7 p.m. and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ at 9:15 p.m. The series runs through Feb. 4 and will include Polanski's eminently creepy ‘The Tenant,’ the cult comedy ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ and ‘Cul-de-sac’ among others. Tickets are 150-200 rubles and the complete schedule is available at

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