“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Nobody Move, This Is A Review: MORTALITY by Christopher Hitchens
Born in Portsmouth in 1949, author, journalist and essayist Christopher Hitchens was one of his generation’s best known intellectuals. A friend and peer of Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, the British-born Hitchens, who successfully applied for American citizenship in 2007, famously criticised Mother Teresa and Lady Diana, harangued US President George Bush for his policies yet supported the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, and was notorious for the strength of his convictions when it came to opposing religion - his book God is Not Great (2007) sold in excess of half a million copies.
A regular on TV chat shows and a sought-after presence on the international lecture circuit, Hitchens contributed to a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, among them Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman.
He seemed a force of nature, but in June 2010 his voracious appetite for alcohol and cigarettes finally 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.”
Shortly afterwards, the author receives confirmation that he is suffering from oesophageal cancer with complications, and that his life expectancy can be measured in months rather than years. Mortality, which is by turns a heartbreaking and uplifting book, and which first appeared in series form in Vanity Fair, is essentially a memoir of his dying.
It takes a rare quality of 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 loss of appetite that in no way diminishes his body’s fondness for vomiting, the occasional moments of existential dread. Even as he writes in his measured and urbane style, he records the increasing difficulties he is having 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 full 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 has 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.”
Indeed, despite the physical toll exacted by the cancer and its various treatments, Hitchens remains rigorous in his thought process throughout. 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 adds 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 keep his eye focused on his navel for very long. A comment about his physical appearance will lead on 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 probably 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, a chapter of scribblings and half-written lines and concepts that weren’t fully fleshed out in time to make the body of the book proper, so that it 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. - Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.