The Cobra’s Heart – from Ghana to Uganda with Ryszard Kapuściński

Much has been written about Ryszard Kapuściński,  foreign correspondent and writer on international politics for the weekly review Polityka.  His life and work has been unique.  He was called the witness of the twentieth century. Soon after his death, on May 2007, the Polish edition of Newsweek magazine revealed that he worked for the Communist Polish secret service from 1965 to 1972 or 1977, and that he had reported on several of his colleagues. Accusations of inaccuracies and implausible situations have been many.  But as Artur Domoslawski, the author of the book, Ryszard Kapuściński: Where does journalism end and literature begin?

… Kapuściński’s style derived from a school of reportage particular to communist Poland, which was heavily censored at the time.  …. The reporters changed the names of the people in order to [protect] them, they created fictional characters. From the perspective of the free world you can say that is absolutely unacceptable in journalism.

Still, Kapuściński  is the one that gave voices to the voiceless. Diligent in his reporting, and a great storyteller, he was constantly wandered between journalism and literature. With his allegories, the beautiful poetic descriptions and his gripping narratives, he  created a style which was described by Adam Hochschild as ‘magic journalism’.


From his essay “The Road to Kumasi” in the book The Cobra’s Heart

“The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time, In the European worldview, time exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics. According to Newton, time is absolute:” Absolute, true, mathematical time of itself and from its own nature, if flows equably and without relation to anything external.”  The European feel himself to be time’s slave, dependent on it, subject to it. To exist and function, he must observe its iron-clad, inviolate laws, its inflexible principles  and rules. He must heed deadlines, dates, days, and hours. He moves within the rigours of time and cannot exist outside them, They impose upon him their requirements and quotas. An unresolvable conflict exists between men and time, one that always ends with man’s defeat – time annihilates him.

Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much loser concept, more open, elastic subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course and rhythm. Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all,on man alone.

Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. It is something that springs to life under our influence, but falls into a state of hibernation, even nonexistence, if we do not direct our energy toward it, It is subservient, passive essence and, most importantly, one dependent on man.

The absolute opposite of time as it is understood in the European worldview.

In practical terms, this mean that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon and find no one at the appointed spot, asking, “When will the meeting take place?” makes no sense. You know the answer: “It will take place when the people come.”


Myths and dragons in Ljubljana

It was the Greek historian Zosimos that first made the connection between Ljubljana (Emona in the old days) and the Argonauts. After stealing the golden fleece of a ram from King Aeetes, Jason and his Argonauts fled from Colchis, but instead of finding an outlet to the Aegean sea, Argo accidentally sailed into the Danude and not being able to turn back, the Argonauts continued to sail on the Danude and onward to the Sava River. Finally they entered into the Ljubljanica River, where a violent storm threatened to crash Argo against the cliffs in Veliki Močilnik. But the brave Jason struck his strong fist against a vertical wall and managed to anchor the ship. The track of his fist can clearly be seen in the rock above Velika Ljubljanica.


As if that was not enough, they came across a terrible fire-breathing dragon that lived in a marsh near Ljubljanica. A fierce battle took place at the end of which the fearless Jason slew the terrible monster. To this day, the dragon is standing proudly on the castle tower in Ljublana’s coat of arms.


The Triple Bridge.  Jože Plečnik designed it in 1932. His work had a great impact on the identity of the city of Ljubljana.
University of Ljubljana


Under the stern look of Tito at Brdo Park. Brdo Castle (Grad Brdo), a Renaissaince castle, built in 1510 by the Governor General of the Austrian Province of Gorizia and after passing  through the hands of numerous owners, became one of the official residences of Josip Broz Tito.  Today is used for official functions.

The small red book of a “complicated communist”.

Slavoj Žižek is unique in that he successfully challenges many of the founding assumptions of today’s left-liberal academy, including the elevation of difference or otherness to ends in themselves, and the pervasive skepticism towards any context-transcendent notions of truth or the good.

His work is idiosyncratic, provocative, discontent. The British literary theorist, Terry Eagleton, described him as the “most formidably brilliant” recent theorist to have emerged from Continental Europe.

It was inevitable that we will discuss about Žižek during my short stay in Ljubljana. And bring back  – a gift  – a small red book, Žižek’s essay “Living in the End of Times“, written especially for Slovenia’s appearance at EXPO 2010, which I read it during my flight back  to the U.K.  The essay is an introduction to his homonymous book.

“Our struggle is not against actual corrupt individuals but against those in power in general; against their authority, against the global order and the ideological mystification which sustains it”, says Žižek.

About the paradox which resides in the retroactive appearance of probability

“An event is thus experienced first as impossible but not real (the prospect of a forthcoming catastrophy which however probable we know it is, we do not believe it will effectively  occur and thus dismiss it as impossible), and then as real  but no longer impossible (once the catastrophy occurs, it is “renormalized”, perceived as part of the normal  run of things, as always – already having been possible). The gap which makes these paradoxes possible is the one between knowledge and belief: we know the (ecological)  catastrophy is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen.”

If we are to confront the threat of a catastrophy, Žižek says, we have to introduce a new notion of time. The future is causally produced by our actions in the past, while the way we act is determined by our anticipation of the future and our reaction to this anticipation.  Dupuy proposes to confront the catastrophy

.. we should first perceive it as our fate, as unavoidable, and then, projecting ourselves into it, adopting its standpoint, we should retroactively insert into its past (the past of the future) counterfactual possibilities.

It is a parodoxical formula: we have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, the catastrophy will take place, it is our destiny – and then, on the background of this acceptance, we should mobilize ourselves to perform the act which will change  destiny itself and thereby insert new possibility into the past. Destiny and free action go hand by hand, Žižek argues.

Freedom is at its most radical the freedom to change one’s Destiny.

The Satellite People of Hans Olav Lahlum

I am a big of of Nordic Noir, Henning Mankell, Peter Hoegn, Asa Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Camilla Lackberg. Hans Olav Lahlum belongs to the same gentre but with a twist. His novels are written in the classical style and they are taking place in the late 1960s. Satellite people is the second book of the K2 and Patricia Series; the first one “The Human Flies” was in the shortlist for the 2015 Petrona Award.

In Oslo, in 1968, the wealthy businessman Magdalon Schelderup dies during a dinner party. The “satellite people” are his 10 guests, which include an ex-wife, his mistress, grownup children,employees and old friends, any one of whom may have a motive for murder.

Satellite people, says Patricia… “are individuals who for whatever reason move in a more or less fixed orbit round another person. It is a phenomenon that can be found in many relationships and at all levels of society. For example, it might be a kind mother who even when she is a very old lady herself continues to circle round a sick child, or a son who though grown still gives all to his father. It could easily be argued that our longest-serving prime minister Einar Gerhertsen’s editor brother was a kind of satellite person to his sibling . And the wife of the current prime minister, also only orbits her husband.

The phenomenon is in fact particularly evident in the wealth upper-classes…. Many strong and powerful people, intentionally or unintentionally, encourage other people to orbit thema as satellites. ……And now it appear that one of the satellites has broken loose its path in a very dramatic fashion and crashed into the planet it was orbiting. This has sparked a highly unpredictable situation. All the fixed orbits have been broken and chaos threatens a universe that has lost its centre point and organised force.”

Lahlum dedicates his book to Agatha Kristie, “the world’s greatest crime writer”, and indeed the plot is inspired by Christie, with a detective duo, Inspector Kolbjorn Kristiansen, known as K2, and the brilliant and enigmatic, wheelchair-using Patricia who lives isolated in her house, something that relates strongly to Rex Stout’s detective Nero Wolfe. The relationship between the two is interesting and dynamic and it has certainly been developed since the first book of the series. Patricia is more mature, more human.

The characters are unique and memorable, they seem more like real people, with their secrets, fears, cruelties and hatreds. Lahlum is a smart writer, with a wonderful deft and humane touch in his writing. Looking forward to the third book in the series.

Jonathan Franzen’s Discomfort Zone

I like Jonathan Franzen’s writing. I like his storytelling ability, the power, the elegance and the clarity in his writing.

But, I have mixed feelings about “The Discomfort Zone”. That four of the six chapters of the books have previously appeared, as separate pieces in the New Yorker, makes you think that Franzen used these pre-existing essays to produce a personal history-narrative. Perhaps this is the reason that the book lacks the continuity and the linearity of a memoir and, it also a good reason not to buy this book; I have borrowed mine from the library.

Centrally Located” is the less successful chapter of the book. Despite the abundance of characters, and dialogue (a high school chess team, form a group of teen pranksters called DIOTI— an anagram of Idiot), the story lacks purpose and destination. Perhaps the reader would benefit from skipping a few pages.

Despite the structural problems and the redundancies that make the book good but not great, is worth reading. The “House for Sale” and “My Bird Problem,” are truly wonderful essays. Franzen’s writing is strong, humorous and engaging. Dominant is his disregard for political-correctness, too.

[….. I was enraged about the aftermath of Katrina, too. For a while, that September, I couldn’t go online, open a newspaper, or even take cash from an ATM without encountering entreaties to aid the hurricane’s homeless victims. The fund-raising apparatus was so far-reaching and well orchestrated it seemed quasi-official, like the “Support Our Troops” ribbons that had shown up on half the country’s cars overnight. But it seemed to me that helping Katrina’s homeless victims ought to be the  government’s job, not mine. I’d always voted for candidates who wanted to raise my taxes, because I thought paying taxes was patriotic and because my idea of how to be left alone—my libertarian ideal!—was a well-funded, well-managed central government that spared me from having to make a hundred different spending decisions every week. Like, was Katrina as bad as the Pakistan earthquake? As bad as breast cancer? As bad as AIDS in Africa? Not as bad? How much less bad? I wanted my government to figure these things out.

It was true that the Bush tax cuts had put some extra money in my pocket, and even those of us who hadn’t voted for a privatised America still obliged to be good citizens. But with government abandoning so many of its former responsibilities, there were now hundreds of new causes to contribute to. Bush hadn’t just neglected emergency management and flood control; aside from Iraq, there wasn’t much he hadn’t neglected. Why should I pony up for this particular disaster? And why give political succor to people I believed were ruining the country? If the Republicans were so opposed to big government, let them ask their own donors to pony up! ……]

Sex and Brains!

Is your brain male or female?

That was the title of BBC documentary in 2014.  In one of the documentary interviews,  Michael Mosley, a British physician claimed that “studies” have found that women are better at “empathizing and communicating”, while men are better at “systematising”  which means  understanding and building systems-not just computers and machinery, but abstract systems such as politics and music. Michael Mosley has been strongly influenced by the work of Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University who argued that the differences between male and female brains occur because of the higher testosterone levels in the womb.  No need to say who have the highest levels.

Simon Baron-Cohen  is so confident that there is a link between foetal testosterone and  mathematical ability that

….’he expresses concern that a future, hypothetical prenatal treatment for autism that blocks the action of foetal testosterone might reduce ‘that baby’s future ability to attend to details and to understand systemic information like maths’.

In Delusions of Gender the psychologist Cordelia Fine spends a lot of time discussing the topic of foetal testosterone, exposes the bad science and reveals how unconscious gender bias influences people’s behaviour. Her initial motivation, she says in an interview in the American Scientist,  was “simply to alert people to the fact that old-fashioned stereotypes are being dressed up in neuroscientific finery, and to remind people not to be so enthralled with brain imaging that they forget the importance of social factors.”

She discusses research into hormonally-driven “hard-wiring” of gendered interests, behaviours and aptitudes,  aka neurosexism. She is also funny!

….  [W]hen I decided to follow up [Louann] Brizendine’s claim  (Louann Brizendine is an American neuropsychiatrist) that the female brain is wired to empathize, it nonetheless proved to be an exercise that turned up surprise after surprise. I tracked down every neuroscience study cited by Brizendine as evidence for feminine superiority in mind reading. (No, really, no need to thank me. I do this sort of thing for pleasure). There were many such references, over just a few pages of text, creating the impression that it is no mere opinion, but scientifically established fact, that the female brain is wired for empathy in a way that the male brain is not. Yet fact-checking revealed the deployment of some rather misleading practices. For example, let’s work our way through the middle of page 162 to the top of page 164 in her book (The female brain, 2007). We kick off with a study of psychotherapists, which found that therapists develop a good rapport with their clients by mirroring their actions. Casually, Brizendine notes, All of the therapists who showed these responses happened to be women.” For some reason, she fails to mention that this is because only female therapists, selected from phone directories, happened to be recruited for the study.

There may be slight variations in the brains of women and men, says Cordelia Fine, but the wiring is soft. Thinking, learning, sensing can all change neural structure directly. As Bruce Wexler has argued, one important implication of this neuroplasticity is that we are not locked into the absolute hardware of our ancestors. We are not prisoners of our genders or our genes.

“ In addition to having the longest period during which brain growth is shaped by the environment, human beings alter the environment that shapes their brains to a degree without precedent among animals ….. It is this ability to shape the environment that in turn shapes our brains that has allowed human adaptability and capability to develop at a much faster rate than is possible through alternation of the genetic code itself. This transgenerational shaping of brain function through culture also means that processes that govern the evolution of societies and cultures have a great influence on how our individual brains and minds work.”

In the epilogue of her book, Fine writes:

The fluidity of the self and the mind is impressive and is in continual cahoots with the environment. When social psychologists discover, for example, that mere words (like competition), everyday objects (like briefcases and boardroom tables), people, or even scenery can trigger particular motives in us, or that similar role models can seep into our most private ambitions, it makes sense to start questioning the direction of causality between gender difference and gender inequality. We are justified in wondering whether, as gender scholar Michael Kimmel suggests, “gender difference is a product of gender inequality, and not the other way around.”
As for hormones that act on the brain, if you cuddle a baby, get a promotion, see billboard after billboard of near-naked women, or hear a gender stereotype that places one sex at a higher status than the other, don’t expect your hormonal state to remain impervious. It won’t. “Even how we behave or what we think about can affect the levels of our sex hormones,” point out Gene Worship authors Gisela Kaplan and Lesley Rogers.

And gender differences in the mind can shift from moment to moment: for example, as stereotype threat is created or dispersed, or self-identity changes. But also, our actions and attitudes change the very cultural patterns that interact with the minds of others to coproduce their actions and attitudes that, in turn, become part of the cultural milieu: in short, “culture and psyche make each other up.” When a woman persists with a high-level math course or runs as a presidential candidate, or a father leaves work early to pick up the children from school, they are altering, little by little, the implicit patterns of the minds around them. As society slowly changes, so too do the differences between male and female selves, abilities, emotions, values, interests, hormones, and brains – because each is inextricably intimate with the social context in which it develops and functions.

Our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable, and changeable. And, if we only believe this, it will continue to unravel.

V.S. Naipaul – The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage (1962) is V.S. Naipaul’s first work of travel writing. It is an account of his returning journey to five Caribbean “post-colonial” societies, Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, Martinique and Jamaica.

The Middle Passage, Naipaul takes the title of his book from the name for the route travelled by the slaves as they were transported from Africa to the colonies of the West Indies, is a highly personal book. Naipaul is continuously confronted with his feelings, the fear of returning to tropical Trinidad, the fear of remembering. Not surprisingly, emotions make him unconsciously biased toward the people of his native country and the other post colonial Caribbean countries. He lucks that kind of stimuli, the rigour and the emotional curiosity of a traveller.

I have tried hard to feel interest in the Amerindians as a whole, but had failed. I couldn’t read their faces; I couldn’t understand their language, and could never gauge at what level communication was possible. Among more complex peoples there are certain individuals who have the power to transmit to you their sense of defeat and purposeless: emotional parasites’ who flourish by draining you of the vitality you preserve with difficulty. The Amerindians had this effect on me.

The cultural gap between Naipul and the Caribbean region is too wide and unlike to be narrowed during the journey. He is detached, sad and uncertain, an outsider; he sees the post slave-holding societies with a critical eye and in order to corroborate his observations he quotes Victorian travel writers, such as Antony Trollope and Charles Kingsley.

All these do not suggest that the work is unimportant. Quite the opposite! The Middle Passage mirrors the cultural blend of the multiracial Caribbean societies, the differences, tensions and conflicts. Insightfully and vividly written, a human and intellectual adventure.

…. [The paths and ditches and houses and fields looked so alike. The house stood on a rectangular plot of land, and, with ditches on all sides, appeared moaned. Rustling junk in a rusting corrugated-iron  shed; a bicycle wheel against a pillar; chickens in the dust and drying mud below the two or three dwarf coconut trees; a bad-tempered barking mongrel; and the mosquitoes thick in the damp heat. A young spastic Indian woman in a slack cotton dress held the dog. We crossed the moat and made our way to the back of the house where, unprotected from the sun, a very old man with white hair and bristle of white bird sat on the ground rubbing oil on himself. The mosquitoes left him alone; they left Jonny alone. But thwy fastened on to me, to my hair, my shirt, my trousers,and even my eyelets of my shoes. Movement didn’t disturb them; they had to be brushed off.] ….

…. [A derelict man in a derelict land; a man discovering himself, with surprise and resignation, lost in a landscape which had never ceased to be unreal because the scene of enforced and always temporary residence; the slaves kidnapped from one continent and abandoned on the unprofitable plantations of another, from which there could never more be escape;] …..