Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Book review: HITCH 22 by Christopher Hitchens

Whenever I asked myself what living person (because what would you want to learn from those who know nothing of the Internet or Osama Bin Laden – even if their names happen to be Nietzsche or Hegel?..)  I would like to interview most, the answer was always Christopher Hitchens. Whenever I thought of others, I started making up questions, like what’s the point of that character; what did you want to achieve with that film; anything good about being born to an artistic family; why the bitterness, Luke?.. With Hitchens, the only thing you would wish to know is what he thinks of this. Of this. And of this. It would only be about his opinion. Because want it or not, Hitchens could always state his view in a way that would make it sound like it is the only one that counts. And for a writer, for a public speaker, for a philosopher – this is where it’s at.

Hitch 22 (an obvious allusion to his friend’s Joseph Heller’s classic novel) is of course a thinker’s memoir. It’s Hitchens’ life interlaced with a great deal of insight, references and quotations. The book was published in June 2010, the same month that Hitchens announced in Vanity Fair that he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The fact that the disease proved to be fatal this December makes all those death ruminations in the opening chapter of the memoir all the more timely and haunting.

What makes Hitch 22 an even greater read, is that Christopher Hitchens was never known for doing things by halves. From his early Trotskyism to his trips to Cuba, Poland, Argentina, etc. to his stance on religion or the war in Iraq to that self-induced ‘waterboarding’ experiment, he led the fullest of lives. And you do get the most electrifying details, like his Buenos Aires meeting with Borges, him bringing several pairs of jeans to the isolated communist Poland, him being ashamed of breaking so quickly and thus asking the people who ‘waterboarded’ him to repeat the experiment. You might have seen the YouTube video or read God Is Not Great, but it’s the autobiography mode that gives you an opportunity to get quite close to the agenda and anxieties driving that brain of a hurricane (a cliché that is completely justified in this case).

So what about his brain? Well, the reason why Hitchens has always been so attractive is that irony, that wit, that certain playfulness of his style. Naom Chomsky (his long standing opponent) he was not – more of a Stephen Fry (his long standing friend). Chomsky has several times admitted that he is indeed a terrible bore, hinting that it is forgivable for a philosopher. Christopher Hitchens had it differently. Yvonne, his mother (a great influence early on; she gets quite a few pages throughout the book), taught him that the greatest sin is to be boring. He never was; here was a man, remember, who got tired of London and immigrated to America. Add to this his enormous, insatiable love of literature and his highly entertaining, loose, full-blown lifestyle.

But that lifestyle went so well with the depth and subtlety of his writing and thinking. The diagnosis and feeble chances of survival (he only gave himself about 5%) made him slow down slightly – but even as death was cornering him, his brain remained strong and sharp. Just check out his articles and interviews from the period. That triumphant religious debate with Tony Blair, for instance.

While expectedly short on his private life, Hitch 22 leaves little ground uncovered: his childhood and his parents, his impressionable college years (with a great deal of quite Joycean experience) and his University years, his early London career in journalism, his life in the States, his intense, expansive travelling to the least safe spots of the world – including a near-fatal experience in Northern Ireland.

But however thrilling all that may be, perhaps the best chapters of the book are reserved for his friends. People like Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan… Hitchens’ friendship was solid, consummate. The way he helped and supported Rushdie all through the latter’s post-fatwa period was anything but commonplace. Then there are these entertaining little stories about bawdy dinner games as well as numerous amusing episodes involving Martin Amis. There’s lots of Kingsley Amis (never a bad thing) and there’s even Hitchens’ account of that meeting with Saul Bellow (so well described by Amis in his brilliant memoir Experience). In fact, they were so close, younger Amis and him, that Hitchens even facetiously admits to being physically attracted to his friend. But there’s some brutal honesty, too, like that depressing  90’s meeting with Kingsley in London. When the age and the booze got the better of the author of The Old Devils and Girl, 20 and he suddenly came off shallow, primitive, dull. 

And again and again, the memoir’s every reminiscence and insight testifies to the power of that unshakable, uncompromising spirit – raised on Thomas Paine and George Orwell. Again and again, it makes you think of a room you’ve seen so many times: a room where Christopher Hitchens expresses his viewpoint and everyone else gets humbled. So inevitably, so mercilessly. Even if that viewpoint happens to be as controversial as his relentless advocacy of the war in Iraq. Antagonizing lots of his numerous admirers, he could nonetheless be trusted even on that. He saw the tapes. He saw the video of Saddam Hussein executing his ministers, one by one, as they grovel and beg for mercy. Christopher Hitchens had the experience and, what is more important, he had the knowledge. So even though his book on Mother Theresa may indeed lack references, that booming, inspirational, convincing tone of knowledge and experience could always be trusted.

Christopher Hitchens was a person you are more than likely to fancy. Compared to him people like Bill Maher or Michael Moore are just amateurish populists. At best. At worst – wankers. There’s a brilliant scene in one of the final chapters of Martin Amis’s masterful and often overlooked 90’s novel The Information where one of its two central characters, Gwyn Barry, who ends up on top, with all the fame and love, is described as ‘cynically and even satanically handsome’. In every possible way – that is Christopher Hitchens.


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