Journalist Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, the appallingly titled Hitch-22, adds another layer to the man we know as a master polemicist and rabble-rouser. Beneath the gruff exterior of the chain-smoking, drunken hack lies a sentimentalist. The man who took on sacred cows like Mother Teresa and Princess Diana and then, not satisfied with earthly take-downs, stretched his vendetta to include God Himself, shows off his softer side, as friend, lover and raconteur.
For a man derided — often rightfully — for his insufferable arrogance and self-importance, it is surprising that Hitchens’ autobiography spend as much time on his friends as his own considerable accomplishments. Entire chapters are devoted to his friendships with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said. Hitchens is on fine form as he relates anecdotes from dinner parties — like the time he and Rushdie renamed Bob Dylan song titles as written by Shakespeare. More important than his experiences covering wars as a foreign correspondent, his central role in Bill Clinton’s impeachment and his many interviews with heads of state, it seems, are the valuable friendships he has made in his nearly 40 years as a journalist. Hitchens tries to be as open as possible about his failings, with one major exception. His first wife, who Hitchens has been accused of abandoning, doesn’t merit a single mention.
Even in his personal stories, though, it is hard for Hitchens to let go of the political animal inside. When he finds out about his Jewish heritage, for instance, he is unable to appreciate the moment for what it is — a tender family moment. Instead, he must infuse it with far greater historical significance that it deserves.
What is most interested about Hitch-22 is the author’s journey from wild-eyed Trotskyite to Iraq-war-supporting neocon. The change, says Hitchens, can be attributed not to himself but the world. He says he has stayed steadfast in his belief that theocracy and ignorance should be challenged at every step — even if it requires military force. It is the old communists, according to him, who are the new reactionaries.
Just as Hitchens was gearing up for the publicity onslaught that would accompany the release of his memoir — the Hitch is as formidable a public speaker as he is a writer — he was laid low by esophageal cancer. That anything could stop the two-packs-a-day, two-bottles-for-lunch Hitchens came as a shock. But even cancer and aggressive chemotherapy is unable to stop Hitchens, who has, metaphorically if not literally, written another chapter in his fascinating life. Like his memoir, Hitchens is writing about his cancer with compassion and a sense of humility, traits that were never previously associated with him. But even a terminal illness has not been enough to convince Hitchens that there may a power that even he can’t comprehend.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2010.