- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004



By Christopher Hitchens

Nation Books, $16.95,

496 pages


Very few journalists deserve to have their work collected into an anthology, but most of us in the business would agree that Christopher Hitchens is one who does. He is one of the best craftsmen of English prose (and one of the best public speakers) on either side of the Atlantic. His range is very wide indeed, from war reporting to investigative journalism on the policy-making of Henry Kissinger, from literary criticism to the most robustly brutal of polemics; Mr. Hitchens relishes them all.

It is not easy to think of any other writer who can turn from the front lines of Sarajevo to the proper deployment of nursery rhymes in translating the novels of Marcel Proust, or from traveling with Paul Wolfowitz to a meeting of the new city council of Najaf to the evisceration of today’s tawdry remnants of the American left and hardly need to draw breath.

Along the way, Mr. Hitchens stops in the sitting room of the blind and elderly Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires. The year is 1977. And as the killing squads of the military-fascist regime prowl the streets below, Mr. Hitchens read Kipling (“The Harp Song of the Dane Women,”) aloud to one of the great figures of 20th century letters and learned that Borges had taken up the study of Anglo-Saxon when he went blind.

And then Mr. Hitchens goes to the Presidential Palace to interview the unsavory General Jorge Videla, who used to traffic in the babies of the rape victims in the prisons of his secret police, as swift a passage from the heights of civilization to the depths of barbarism as a chap can be expected to make and stay sane.

He has a reporter’s nose for a story, picking his moments to slip across the Kuwaiti border into Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or up the Khyber Pass, into the basement of Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel to play pool with North Korean officials, or into the Baghdad office of America’s Viceroy in Iraq, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, to ask him why he had become the only veteran of Kissinger Associates “to have used American military power to install a Communist leader on a Third World provision government.”

It was a very good question. Hamid Jameed Mousa, secretary of the Iraqi Communist Party, had been appointed to Bremer’s Governing Council. This helps introduce us to the remarkable fact that young Hitchens once went punting on the river at Oxford with Gertrude Bell, the explorer and Arabist who helped draw the boundaries of modern Iraq in 1919, and with Sir Max Mallowan, husband of Agatha Christie, the archaeologist who made the first detailed classified of Iraq’s unrivaled antiquities.

Mr. Hitchens has an instinct for picking the right time and place, for the right question and happening to accumulate the right contacts. But there is something else that singles Mr. Hitchens out. Unlike most journalists, he also has the delight in research and the nose for an archival trail that marks the serious scholar. In his essay on the poetry of Byron in the current volume, he comes across a line in the second canto of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” that thrusts this poem, almost 200 years old, directly upon our modern attention.

Wahab’s rebel brood, who

dared divest

The prophet’s tomb of all

its pious spoil.

This may be, as Mr. Hitchens suggests, the first literary mention of the rise of the extremist Islamic Wahhabite sect in what we now call Saudi Arabia.

Nobody had noticed that before, just as nobody had noticed that long-lost Kipling poem that Mr. Hitchens found in Roosevelt’s library at Hyde Park. Or just as nobody seemed aware that Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World” and LSD-taking chum of Timothy Leary, had been the French teacher of a young Eric Blair at Eton. Blair went on to write “1984” under his pen-name of George Orwell, borrowing as Mr. Hitchens points out several themes from “Brave New World” along the way, and Huxley went on to write a book on LSD (“The Doors of Perception,” a title borrowed from Blake’s writings) that inspired a Californian rock band to call itself The Doors.

Reading Mr. Hitchens is rather like that. There are obscure but interesting byways to be followed, trails of clues that only a scholar would unearth, that may or may not be significant but are usually fun. In all the accounts of Bloomsday that were published around the world last summer, on the 100th anniversary of that June 16, 1904, that was the epic day of Leopold Bloom, I have yet to see any other than went back to James Joyce’s diaries to ask what it was about the day that made him choose it for the novel “Ulysses.”

But Mr. Hitchens established that it was that very day that Joyce found sexual pleasure with a woman who was no prostitute, a young chambermaid named Nora Barnacle. For the young author, it was evidently a day worth immortalizing.

Equally striking is the link Mr. Hitchens traces between the magnificently reactionary novelist Evelyn Waugh (author of “Scoop” — the finest book on journalism ever written) and the revolutionaries of the Pan-African Congress, still in exile in the early days of the long struggle to overthrow the apartheid regime of South Africa.

In another of his novels, “Black Mischief,” Waugh had coined the named Azania for his invented African state. Thinking this had a rather fine and noble ring and would sound well at some future UN roll-call, in 1960 the PAC wrote to Waugh at his home in England, asking if they could borrow it for the future name of liberated South Africa. And although Nelson Mandela decided that the old name might help reconcile the whites to majority rule, the gravestone of Steve Biko, hero of the Soweto uprising of the 1970s, still celebrates the fabled land of Azania.

The great pleasure of this book is that reading the man is almost as good as knowing him. You never know whether you will be in the company of hard-drinking Hitchens, the globe-trotting old reporter who has been everywhere and seen it all twice, or of the serious literary man who has read it all, thought hard about it, and can spout most of it off by heart even while wheezing his way through a packet of Rothman filters and a bottle of Black Label.

The wicked appeal of Hitch is that it is one and the same person, the literary aesthete who can recite Auden by the hour is the same ruthless skeptic who deconstructs Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. The old leftie with a soft spot for Trotsky and the Paris Commune is the same chap who can write a devastating assault on that “great sagging blimp” Michael Moore and his “dishonest and demagogic” film “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

Like his hero George Orwell, Mr. Hitchens is an equal opportunity critic, ready to puncture the pretensions of trendy or traditionalist alike, to savage political friends and foes on right and left and in the center too, something a lot of Clinton supporters could never quite understand.

His talent is so prodigious that — almost uniquely in a profession that worships the little green god of envy — he does not inspire much jealousy. He has extraordinary charm and the constitution of an ox; nothing else explains how he can consume such gargantuan quantities of scotch and tobacco, and still produce so much remarkable work.

As a friend of 35 years standing (he was best man at my wedding), I know of no more convivial or entertaining companion at table or bar. Lunches with the Hitch have a way of stretching magically into evenings. He also has a rare talent for friendship that transcends tedious details like an interesting person’s political views — one reason why the Puritan killjoys of the left were so quick to turn on him when Mr. Hitchens rightly described the September 11 atrocities as “fascism with an Islamic face.”

Doubtless there is something to be said against the man, but I’m not the one to ask. We go back too far, and though I think he was less than fair to the Clinton Presidency, there was far too much liberal readiness to pardon Mr. Clinton’s gross faults and grosser appetites and Mr. Hitchens was justified in redressing that balance.

But the right should not count on his pen in the future, and nor should the center. His loyalties don’t work like that. But it’s easy enough to understand him. Just read the essay “For Patriot Dreams” about being in New York after September 11 and realizing that his real nationality was Manhattanite, or Greenwich Villager: “the crucial four words in the greatest of all documents. The pursuit of happiness. Just to name that is to summarize and encapsulate all that is detested by the glacial malice of fundamentalism and tribalism. That’s what they can’t stand. They confuse it with hedonism and selfishness and profanity, and they have no idea. No idea at all.”

He told his students at the New School to stay in the city, even though their parents wanted them to fly home. They would never forgive themselves if they left New York at this time. He took the subway to Broadway-Nassau, and walked through the streets until the stench of dust and smoke and bodies seeped deep into his clothes.

“And I swore a small oath,” he recalls, in a succinct statement of faith and partiality, a rare glimpse of profound sentiment from the least sentimental man I know. “One has to be capable of knowing when something is worth fighting for. One has to be capable of knowing an enemy when one sees one.”

Martin Walker is The Editor of United Press International.

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