I’ve just finished reading “Hitch-22” – the memoirs of the late, great Christopher Hitchens.
Some (a fair portion) of his narrative, I found difficult to grasp fully or to follow the argument to its conclusion, with sentences and paragraphs full of literary and political allusions and references which would require, if I had the time, plenty of background reading on my part.
But yet still it is engrossing, filled with wonderful little moments such as when he tells the story of how Margaret Thatcher (he swears this actually happened) made him bend over and smacked him on the backside with a rolled up pamphlet after he dared to disagree with her at a gathering in Westminster, before she became prime minister.
Not one to ever concede an argument, most notably with a women he admired awfully (not the other way round), I think Hitchens took the spanking just so that he could recount this remarkable anecdote.
There’s plenty of wit, charm, irreverence and cheekinesss in his writing (I wrote about his tips for drinking in an earlier post), but also a great deal of solemnity and painful personal recollections.
There’s bittersweet recounts of his mother, Yvonne, who never revealed her Jewish roots to her husband, Hitch’s distant, but proud father – “the commander” – and who died in a suicide pact with her lover in a bare hotel room in Athens.
Hitchens writes about his need to spend time each year in unstable countries, how he accidentally wandered into a dangerous part of Afghanistan, how he nearly got shot in Northern Ireland, his student protests, his philosophical and literary bouts with Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Susan Sontag and Edward Said to name just a few.
He also has the humility and flexibility of mind (a trait which he says separates the open-minded from the “totalitarian principle”) to admit that he held a wrong view about a situation – most notably, his opposition to the first Gulf War – and armed with better information, he has changed it.
There’s also a wonderful, incredibly poignant story retold from a Vanity Fair article about a man Hitch never got to meet – Mark Daily, a young American soldier who volunteered to fight in Iraq after being inspired by the articles he read written by Hitchens arguing there was a moral case for war (to remove the psychopathic tyrant Saddam Hussein) and who was killed in combat.
He writes of Daily:
“This is the boy who would not let others be bullied in school, who stuck up for his younger siblings, who was briefly a vegetarian and Green Party member because he couldn’t stand cruelty to animals or to the environment, a student who loudly defended Native American rights and who challenged a MySpace neo-Nazi in an online debate in which the swastika-displaying antagonist finally admitted that he needed to rethink things. If I give the impression of a slight nerd here I do an injustice. Everything that Mark wrote was imbued with a great spirit of humor and tough-mindedness.
Hitchens also writes lovingly that the country “lost an exceptional young citizen, whom I shall always wish I had had the chance to meet” who seemed to have “passed every test of young manhood, and to have been admired and loved and respected by old and young, male and female, family and friends”.
In this way, he shifts from strongly held ideological positions on religion, politics, war, the Middle East to tales of the people who shaped his life and gave him his richest experiences.
I came across a beautiful passage that made the hairs on the back of my neck bristle and really, really made me think and ponder the horror of it all.
Hitch writes about a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and the dangers of those who wish to wipe the slate clean – for a “tabula rasa” for their lives.
“I once spoke to someone who had survived the genocide in Rwanda; and she said to me there was nobody left on the face of the earth, either friend or relative who knew who she was.
“No one who remembered her girlhood and her early mischief and family lore; no simbling or boon companion who could tease her about that first romance; no lover or pal with whom to reminisce.
“All her birthdays, her exam results, illnesses, friendships, kinships – gone.
“She went on living but with a tabula rasa as her diary and calendar and notebook.
“I think of this every time I think of the callow ambition to ‘make a new start’ or to be ‘born again’.
“Do those who talk this way truly wished for the slate to be wiped?
“Genocide means not just mass killing, to the level of extermination, but mass obliteration to the verge of extinction.
“You wish to have one more reflection on what it is to have been made the object of a ‘clean sweep’?