- - Tuesday, October 16, 2012


By Christopher Hitchens
Twelve/Hachette, $22.95, 104 pages

This must have been a very hard book to write. Of course, once Christopher Hitchens had been struck with advanced cancer of the esophagus, his very life became difficult. There was nothing he could do about that, but writing about it was a choice, and his hesitation about doing so speaks well about him as a human being. His reluctance shows fastidiousness and grace, qualities not even his most ardent fans might have associated with this slash-and-burn writer. But in the end, Hitchens was too much the journalist to shy away from this story, which, albeit without his will, had found him, and this slim but intense book, packed with fearless and intelligent inquiry and meditation, is the result.

Readers may well find it hard to read as well, for Hitchens spares us few details about the toll the illness — and the draconian treatment he opted for — wrought on his body. He does this without any sense of whining or self-pity, staunch in his willingness to sacrifice taste buds and pleasures, to endure what is tough to bear if it can prolong his life. Ever the realist, he knew full well that, of course, there would be no happy ending. Recalling John Diamond, a British journalist who chronicled his own struggle with a particularly devastating form of cancer in a weekly column, Hitchens wryly notes, “[A]fter a year or more well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, miracle cure! Hey, I was just having you on! No, neither of these could work as endings. Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did.”

That so close to the end of his life, Hitchens can display such a keen sense of humor is remarkable. In her afterword, his wife, Carol Blue, informs us that he wrote the preceding passage from brief notes written before his unexpectedly abrupt demise. Throughout his text, such touches leaven the grimness of his story’s inevitable trajectory.

Ever the consummate man of words, Hitchens ruminates on the malapropos expressions commonly used by and applied to the sick. These run the gamut from “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” to “If anyone can beat this, you can,” and he is masterful in his deconstruction of them. Instead of Thomas Carlyle’s “Everlasting Yea and No,” you might say he offers an everlasting “Hah!” But he can appreciate this humorous take on the grim reaper from Kingsley Amis:

Death has this much to be said for it:

You don’t have to get out of bed for it.

Wherever you happen to be

They bring it to you — free.

He adds, characteristically, that Amis’ death “duly came, without much fuss and with no charge.”

Hitchens‘ abiding interest in language and self-expression, as well as his intelligence and courage, never wane. However, it is useless to pretend that the tone of “Mortality” does not darken as it winds its way through what aptly might be termed “the valley of the shadow of death.” The atheist to the hilt in him might cavil at the biblical phrase, but surely the admirer of peerless language would approve. Ever appreciative of the noble intent of the medical personnel no matter how devastating the effect on him of what they are doing, he notes, in contrast, the additional sharpened edge given to pain by deliberate torment.

This, then, naturally leads to a meditation on the nature of torture and his own experience in deliberately undergoing the process of waterboarding in order to really understand what it felt like. Yet his contrast between a torture willingly undertaken for a story as a journalist and the pain endured as a patient in the desperate hope for a cure is as moving as it is ironic. Now the poetry Hitchens invokes is light-years away from Amis’ humorous lines. Rather, it is Wilfred Owen’s terrible images of a soldier encountering a poison-gas attack in World War I, “guttering, choking, drowning.” That this refers to both waterboarding and his own medical terrors is very apt — and very touching.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.



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