Posted in History, Literature

BOOK REVIEW: THE HOUSE OF HUNGER by Dambudzo Marechera

Dambudzo Marechera is my favourite writer of all time. The House of Hunger epitomises what Marechera was all about and the Guardian Fiction Prize of 1979 was just icing on the cake. I have read the book over ten times over the years but I have never gotten round to reviewing it.

The title of the book arises from the novella with the same title which forms the biggest chunk of the book. In addition to the novella are nine short stories all aptly titled to give the reader a snapshot of the writer’s eccentricities. It is definitely not an easy book to review neither is it easy to read. The writer rapes us into journeying through his tormented mind. The title novella itself is hugely autobiographical as the narrator relates his ordeal in war-torn Rhodesia. The first sentence is epic; I got my things and left.What follows is a schizophrenic repertoire of literary genius as the narrator-cum-writer-trump takes the reader through the dusty streets of a black Rhodesia ghetto all the way via hell to his final escape from the house of hunger.

In characteristic Marechera-style, the narrator’s first sex lesson stands out. It is this particular part of the book that lured me to the man. I vividly remember the day our high school English Literature teacher described the scene in a disdainful but proud voice as he attempted to dissuade us from reading that type of Literature. Naturally that gave me the insatiable impetus to read every single word Marechera ever wrote. The sex lesson came as a rude arousal from slumber under his parents’ bed where the narrator had to sleep every night for lack of space. He hears the squeeking of the bed and the tortured breaths of the two custodians of the loins from whence he came. His first attempt of the same act got him a venereal disease; a disease which earns him the rite of passage into adulthood. The whole book reeks of violence. Gunshots are so commonplace it is difficult to hear the small still voice of the drunk and gifted poet. Flora Veit-Wild, Marechera’s biographer and lover, repeatedly clamoured that the author was more of a poet than a prose-writer. I agree. The same could be said of James Joyce whom Marechera emulated and revered.

Had Dambudzo Marechera not tragically died so young in 1987 (at the tender age of 32) I am quite certain every student of English Literature would have hated the man. His work is a nightmare to study. It is convoluted, sprinkled and true. He was a voracious and prodigious reader who wrote exactly what he read after first testing it out on his own life of coarse. The House of Hunger is a brilliant work of art and the best Zimbabwe has ever produced. It is a difficult book to read but very much worth the effort. I dare you to read it.

Posted in Health, Literature, Medical, Philosophy, Theology

The Difference between a Surgeon and a Physician

I always stand guard against over-generalisations and over-simplifications but sometimes there is no choice but to succumb to the banalities of common literature. A surgeon is a medical doctor who specialises in doing operations (as the British say) or operating theatre procedures (as the Americans call it) while a Physician on the other hand specialises in prescribing drugs and everything else other than “cutting to effect a cure”. There are overlaps of coarse: Surgeons also prescribe medications and Physicians also do some surgical procedures. The subject of my essay however is not about the qualifications and job descriptions of the two but in the juxtaposition of personality traits that continues to pique the interest of any individual who finds themselves picking lilies, thorns and roses in the rich field that is the medical profession.

Scientific work has been done to better understand these differences. A few come to mind. Rene Warschkow et al did a comparative cross-sectional study on personality traits in Internists (the American term for Specialist Physicians) and Surgeons in Switzerland using the Frieburg Personality Inverntory and published some interesting findings. In general, Surgeons viewed themselves as having excessive achievement orientation and extraversion (talkative, energetic, enthusiastic and assertive) while their counterparts, the Physicians, admitted to having decreased aggressiveness. In the study Surgeons had the stereotype of being less inhibited, more excitable, aggressive and strained while Physicians on the other hand were almost balanced and had the stereotype of having highly developed social orientation. McCulloch et al also published interesting findings on tolerance of uncertainty, extroversion, neuroticism and attitudes to randomised controlled trials (how a doctor accepts the new science) among one thousand (1 000) Surgeons and Physicians who were mailed questionnaires and replied. Surgeons were found to be more extroverted (the talkative doctors) and less neurotic while also being more intolerant of uncertainty. However, no difference was found in the attitudes regarding clinical trials.

On the 27th of September 2013, at the International Conference on Residency Education, Dr Joseph M. Drosdeck of Wexner Medical Centre Ohio made a very fascinating presentation on his findings in a study he did on 68 Surgical participants and 124 non-Surgical participants on the Five Factor Model (also known as the Big Five Inventory Survey). I have to admit this single work of science – the Big Five Inventory Survey – has been the single most powerful driving force behing this nifty essay. Drosdeck compared five aspects of personality:

1. Extraversion (explained above)

2. Agreeableness (sympathetic, kind, mature, caring and affectionate – both hostility and indifference)

3. Conscientiousness (organised, thorough, diligent and planful). Good impluse control also falls under this category.

4. Emotional Stability (Neuroticism) – calm in the face of adversity. Low scores were associated with Anxiety, Depression and self – consciousness.

5. Openness to Experience (Intellectual, creative, artistic – Conventional andConservative) OR

Preference to familiarity

I found Drosdeck’s conclusions very fascinating. He concluded that there are indeed inherent personality differences between Surgical and non-Surgical specialties AND personality traits change during medical training. This is exactly what we ALL have known: Surgeons are born but can be made. Physicans are born but can be made. Now that I have the warm embracing cushion of fact allow me to embellish and indulge.

I know a real Surgeon. I have met him. He has a very deep voice and he loves his drink. Legend has it he once vomitted into an open abdomen while operating. He was called to an emegerncy (even though he was not on call) while lubricating and because he is a real Surgeon he responded. The patient survived, made a full recovery and the Surgeon is still a real Surgeon. I remember a particular day. I was seated somewhere in a plain dark corner while the Surgeon introduced us the meek medical students to Surgery. He said and this I remember clearly for it was during one of those few moments I actually paid attention during a lecture, “A Surgeon has eyes of an eagle, the heart of a lion, hands of a baby……”. He must have said more but I blanked out as usual. He is a politician, loves authority, thinks he’s the greatest Surgeon on earth, thinks being a Surgeon is the greatest call on earth and believes, “God’s greatest gift to mankind is a functioning anus.” He has childish tendencies. I remember one day in theatre we had a very interesting case and my other boss, the other real Surgeon, decided to grace the theatre with his presence. In came in the real Surgeon late, takes one look at the other real Surgeon and sulks his way through one of the best acts of thievery I have ever seen. I believe a Surgeon has to be a very good thief. He has to break into a home, take what he came for and leave everything as close as it was before he broke in. He has to go in, grab, fix and get the hell out of there before he gets caught. Before he gets caught by the Creator.

I know a real Physician. I have met him. He talks well, dresses well, walks fast and praises everyone….at the appointed time. He is eloquent. When he talks you have no choice but to listen. He makes sure you know that he knows what he is talking about. He smells good too. The nurses talk about him as if he invented soap. I heard one say, “He smells of water”. Not ‘like water’. OF water. He too loves authority though he seems to shun it. He is soft. Soft-spoken and very very verbose. He loves euphemisms. AIDS is not in his vocabulary but it certainly is what he knows best. It is ‘retroviraemia’. He can recite all the latest guidelines but never calls Diabetes ‘high blood sugar’ unless talking to a patient. It is ‘glycaemia’. He can do a full examination in under ten minutes and come up with ten different diagnoses. He knows all the drugs: their names, uses, dosages and everything about them that you do not want to know. He thinks “Surgeons just like cutting and nothing else”. He thinks they are not intelligent. He is very gentle. Even his handwriting is gentle and delicate.

A doctor is either a Surgeon or a Physician. Paediatricians, Radiologists, Psychiatrists, Anaesthetists, Oncologists, Gynaecologists, Haematologists, General Practitioners and the works. Every doctor is either a Physician or a Surgeon………….or a Pathologist. Now those people are different and special. They have their own category. I know a Pathologist.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy

BOOK REVIEW: ENIGMA by Robert Harris

Between the covers of this book are pages of raw talent. With ENIGMA, Robert Harris has driven me into a rut where every other book I am going to have the misfortune of reading will only pale in comparison to the sheer quality of just this one book.

The plot is deceptively predictable – a genius, young but eccentric mathematician gets a crack at decoding the legendary Nazi naval code Enigma while falling for a sweet but wayward dame who may or may not be a spy. It is the typical plot for this particular genre; a genre built around the complex and by nature illicit art of mathematically decoding codes (cryptanalysis). The young Tom Jericho gets invited back to Bletchley Park (the British spy headquarters for code-breakers) from a sojourn he was forced to take in quiet Cambridge following a nervous meltdown at work. On his unceremonious arrival – as the prodigal weakling – he is shocked to find the the girl he lost his virginity and marbles to, Claire, had literally gone AWOL. He acquires the uncanny assistance of Claire’s roommate Hester in searching for the disappeared lass.

What sets ENIGMA apart from the numerous other books in this genre is the depth of understanding of the science itself exquisitely blended with powerful prose and hints of poetry to create a beautiful work of art. It is lines like, ‘She wore her long, dark hair like a headache….'{describing Hester on page 301) that remind the reader that what they have in their hands is not just a novel but a literary work of art. As I was reading the book I could not help but silently compare it with what I thought was up to that point the best book in the genre, Dan Brown’s DIGITAL FORTRESS. After I read Dan Brown’s book I always felt like the book was well researched and interesting but there was one thing it was missing. I never knew what that thing was till I read Robert Harris’ book. What DIGITAL FORTRESS was missing was Robert Harris.

I highly recommend him.

Posted in Literature, Neuroscience

BOOK REVIEW: The Mind Game by Hector Macdonald

This is Macdonald’s first novel and I must say for a novice he did pretty well. The literary style reminds me of the German authors Hermann Hesse and Gunter Grass. The Mind Game is a book written with the sole intention of messing with the reader’s mind.

It documents in rather vengeful detail the perils of a young Oxford undergraduate student (Ben Ashurst) as he is used as a guinea pig in an elaborate experiment designed by a hot-shot scientist on a quest to design an algorithm that detects and manipulates emotions. To make things interesting a hot dame (Cara) is thrown into the plot and given the role of propelling the story forward through her depiction as a mirage Ben is meant to view as reality. The entire book reeks of deception and betrayal. Expectations and paranoia drive the plot to a point of madness. Over and over again it appears Ben continues to lose everything; love, sanity, friends and everything in between.

Unlike Hesse and Grass who made this genre great, The Mind Game falls far short in its attempt at justifying every vector taken in the voyage of the inner workings of the human mind. In other words it is just too ludicrous. I got the feeling of reading a succession of short stories with no happy endings that were pieced together to form an amalgamation of narratives that barely pass as a collective work commonly termed as a ‘a novel’.

It makes for a good beginner’s taste of the larger and most accomplished works of this genre. It was certainly a good effort and not giving its author due credit for this work is just plain malice which I choose not to be a part of.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy

Lines Written During a Period of Insanity

This witty poem written by William Cowper sometime in the later decades of the 18th Century AD is one of my favourites. It is a disturbing tragedy with heavy Biblical references which makes it a difficult read for anyone with a less-than-par didactic knowledge of the Christian go-to book.

Judas was one of Jesus Christ’s disciples who sold out his ‘Master’ to the Jewish High Priests for a paltry thirty pieces of silver. It takes no great imagination to conceive that Judas was and still is disliked by Christians hence the line “Damned below Judas: more abhorred than he was.” This line is the pivot of the entire poem. In actual fact the entire poem sounds like a suicide note. The fact that Judas killed himself gives credence to my assertion.

The other character that needs unmasking is Abiram who is described in the book of Numbers as the leader of a group of dissidents who rebelled against the authority of Moses and Aaron. The poet laments that he deserves “to receive a sentence/ Worse than Abiram’s“. Self-pity is heightened when the narrator claims that even Hell will refuse to receive him after his death for his sins are so great than hell will actually feel like a sanctuary for a sinner of that stature – a sinner worse than a traitor and a rebel against the ‘Master’ himself.

When all these nuances are factored in it becomes somewhat more apparent that there is a tinge of madness in it all. We are left wondering, “how on earth can someone think they are that evil?”. The form of madness alluded to in this poem is not the psychotic Schizophrenia-type but the deep depression type. Depression was considered a form of madness in that era and the poet himself suffered from serious bouts of depression. It is believed that William Cowper wrote this poem around 1773 when he was in the middle of one of his dark days.

Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,
Scarce can endure delay of execution,
Wait with impatient readiness to seize my
		Soul in a moment.

Damned below Judas:more abhorred than he was,
Who for a few pence sold his holy Master.
Twice-betrayed Jesus me, the last delinquent,
		Deems the profanest.

Man disavows, and Deity disowns me;
Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
Therefore Hell keeps her ever-hungry mouths all
		Bolted against me.

Hard lot! encompassed with a thousand dangers,
Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors,
I'm called, if vanquished, to receive a sentence
		Worse than Abiram's

Him the vindictive rod of angry Justice
Sent quick and howling to the centre headlong;
I, fed with judgement, in a fleshy tomb, am
		Buried above ground.
Posted in History, Literature, Neuroscience, Philosophy

BOOK REVIEW: NEMESIS by Isaac Asimov

This is by far the most intense scientific work of fiction I have ever read. The genius and prolific Professor of Biochemistry Isaac Asimov outdid himself in this book. It exudes a nostalgic aura of missing one’s future even before one has lived out his present.

The book is set in the third century of this millennium, in a world where technology is only limited by the depths of astrological exploration. Man has set up colonies in space. The ultimate drive of humanity is a way out of Earth or rather OFF it. Our planet has become a cesspit of disease, poverty and anarchy. Only the colonies offer some modicum of peace and order. Societies are once again divided along racial lines with the best of them setting up base in their own ‘world’. Among these many colonies strewn all over the galaxy is Rotor a community of mostly scientists ruled by an astute political visionary by the name of Commissioner Julius Pitt. He sets the ball rolling when his chief Physicist Dr Insigna discovers a planet that can possibly sustain life. He launches a campaign to convince the citizens of Rotor to pack up and go to the dwarf star Nemesis. They agree and they move. The book is essentially about the effects of that move.

The way this simple story is interwoven and well-thought out is outright astounding. It left me asking myself, “Did all this come from just one brain?”. To make things even more interesting if one were to read a good number of Isaac Asimov’s books an obvious trend of dabbling in the prophetic. This book proves just that. It was ahead of its time. In fact I can say, with a heavy helping of imagination, that Isaac Asimov deserves a place right next to George Orwell in the Literature Hall of Fame.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy

BOOK REVIEW: UP AT THE VILLA – W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of W. Somerset Maugham. Perhaps it is because he tried to pursue a career in Medicine and fell in love with letters along the way. I can relate with that. His work Up At The Villa  however left me worried about this icon. I found the book heavily disturbing. I was as shocked with the book as the New York editor who commissioned the book. It left me wondering, ‘what on earth was Somerset thinking?”.

The book is about the immoral fling a beautiful and young widow has with a broke refugee who turns out to be mortally mentally unwell. The young man is so distraught with the inevitable after-the-one-night-stand rejection that he takes his own life right in front of his ephemeral lover, using her own gun. What is sad about the whole fiasco is that this was the widow’s first one-one stand in her entire life. It is as if the gods were telling the young lass ‘this is not your thing.’ To make matters more complicated she seeks the aid of a common playboy to cover up her mess. As if this was not enough she is tentatively bethroned to a highly successful but much older English diplomat who has a paedophile-type crush on her. Her chance at financial reprieve is brutally crushed after her confession to the the older suitor. In the end she settles for the roughshod Casanova.

Considering that the book was written in early 20th Century England it is entirely plausible that the novella was met with utter disdain upon its publication. It is highly probable that the book’s reception was somewhat similar to the initial reviews Fifty Shades of Grey received upon its release. Both works are an affront to the timeless values of morality that continue to simmer in the psyche of alert readers who open a book for its intrinsic value and nothing more.

My reading of Up At The Villa left me with a feeling of despair for the future of romance in the 21st Century. If such abhorrent ideas could be conceived and well-received in the ‘innocent’ decades of the 20th Century what hope remains for 21st Century literature? As I endured to the end of the book I kept asking myself, ‘is chivalry really dead?’