Atlantic Books, €15.95
Review: Declan Burke
“Like so many of life’s varieties of experience,” writes Christopher Hitchens in Mortality, “the novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off.”
Born in Portsmouth, England, in 1949, author, journalist and essayist, Christopher Hitchens was one of his generation’s best-known intellectuals. A friend of novelists Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, Hitchens, who became an American citizen in 2007, famously criticised Mother Theresa and Lady Diana, harangued US President George Bush for his policies, yet supported his administration’s invasion of Iraq, and was notoriously anti-religion — his book God is Not Great (2007) sold half a million copies.
A regular on TV chat shows and on the international lecture circuit, Hitchens contributed to a variety of newspapers and magazines, among them Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman.
Hitchens seemed a force of nature, but, in Jun 2010, his voracious appetite for alcohol and cigarettes caught up with him.
“I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death,” he says in the opening line of Mortality, with the deadpan humour that pervades even the darkest chapters. “But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as I were actually shackled to my own corpse.”
The author receives confirmation that he has oesophageal cancer with complications, and that his life expectancy can be measured in months. Mortality, which is by turns heartbreaking and uplifting, and which first appeared in series form in Vanity Fair, is a memoir of his dying. It takes a rare courage to look in the mirror, see death gazing back and not flinch at writing down its starkest details. Hitchens is merciless as he sketches in his own failings — the hair and weight loss, the reduced appetite that does not diminish his body’s fondness for vomiting, the occasional existential dread. Even as he writes in his measured and urbane style, he records his difficulties with the physical process of writing. Even worse, for this veteran of lecture and television debate, a man with an actor’s ability to project his personality to the furthest reaches of any chamber or hall, is the prospect of the oesophageal cancer eating away at his voice.
“What do I hope for?” he asks. “If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”
He remains clear-eyed throughout, determinedly unsentimental, taking responsibility for the behaviour that has brought him to this pass. “I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction,” he says, acknowledging that he had been “knowingly burning the candle at both ends” for most of his adult life, “and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal it bores even me.” He mocks the temptation to feel sorry for himself.
“Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? … But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.”
Despite the physical toll exacted by the cancer and its treatments, Hitchens remains rigorous in his thought process. When one of the Christian ‘faithful’ posts a website contribution declaring that throat cancer is the perfect way for God to dispatch a man who used his voice to deny God’s existence, and that hellfire awaits, Hitchens calmly responds with a query as to why it wasn’t his thought-generating brain that God chose to destroy. He knows, of course, that he is wasting precious breath. “To them, a rodent carcinoma really is a dedicated, conscious agent — a slow-acting suicide-murderer — on a consecrated mission from heaven.”
Meanwhile, the well-wishers are almost as draining on his emotional reserves. From far and wide, from friend and former foe alike, come heartfelt promises of prayers, prompting Hitchens to wonder why people of such faith would want to see their prayers undo God’s great plan. “A different secular problem also occurs to me,” he says mischievously. “What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.”
With his mind still nimble, it’s difficult for the polymathic Hitchens to navel gaze for very long. A comment about his physical appearance will lead to an extended digression about the nature of prayer in the Old Testament; when he assesses his increasingly remote chances of survival, given the development of cutting-edge techniques, it results in a disquisition on the morality and ethics of using stem-cells in cancer research.
At 91 pages, Mortality is a short book, and even at that it feels brief — although Hitchens bubbles with such brio that it would have felt as such had it been three times its length. But even if it is a slim volume, it exerts a powerful gravity, drawing the reader inexorably into the heart of Hitchens’ plight and making of his own death a universal experience.
The last chapter is the most unsettling, scribblings and half-written lines and concepts that weren’t fully fleshed out in time to make the body of the book proper. So the chapter reads like the mental flutterings of a fading consciousness, still randomly generating ideas, memories, and emotions as the life-force slips away gently into the ether.
Harrowing at times, hilarious at others, Mortality is a delicate, profound and surprisingly tender love letter to life at the very moment of its leaving. You will hardly read a more important book this year.
Christopher Hitchens died in December last year.
* Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His latest novel is Slaughter’s Hound (Liberties Press)
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