Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens

Lowdown: Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography.
The title Hitch-22 might lead potential readers to suspect this self described memoir is the diary of a mad man. Having read it I would vote for the exact opposite: this is a book written by a very rational person describing his full frontal assault on life in order to leave the world better for it. This is a book written by someone who loves life, with at least some parts written with the author’s full knowledge of his pending end through terminal cancer.
For the few weeks I took to read his book Christopher Hitchens held my hand through the journeys of his life. Following from his introduction and the realization his life is coming to its end, Hitchens takes us back to its start through a collection of stories, each of which seems to center around key characters in his life. We start with his parents, which he tellingly refers to as Yvonne and The Commander. We move on through his British public (i.e., private) school upbringing at boys only institutions with everything that comes with that and with a whole lot of Pink Floyd “We Don’t Need No Education” spirit. The well read Hitchens, to quote a Richard Dawkins phrase, starts to pop up then, and continues through his escapades at both Cambridge and Oxford. We move on to meet other literary figures of influence, such as Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. We learn of Hitchens’ views regarding the USA and his relocation there, which obviously meant a lot to him. We learn of his stand on the Jewish question as well as his stand on matters of totalitarianism, particularly in the context of Iraq. All in all, a pretty tight package bursting with views and influences but relatively few accounts of specific events in a man’s life; this is more about analysis than story telling. As one can expect, language plays a key role in the story telling, forcing me to refer to the dictionary at rather alarming rates but also filling me with awe at the mastery and style on display.
The effects of the different stories varies. Some are touching, as with the one on how the author’s appeal for American citizenship was sponsored by a company impressed with his writings on Mother Teresa (if you have to ask, Hitchens does not pay the latter compliments). Others are tragic, as with the story of Hitchens mother’s growing dissatisfaction and ultimate suicide. Then there is the educational, as with the stories of Hitchens’ struggles, as limited as an individual’s struggles can be, with dictatorships in Argentina, Portugal and Iraq.
There is, indeed, a lot to learn from Hitchens. Not just in the clear sense of the word, as in the learning of facts about the decline of the British Empire or the support given by NATO to fascist regimes. There is more to Hitch-22 than facts learning about the history “our side” would like to forget about; you know, the stuff we tend to not hear of and avoid talking about because it shows us as rather different to the gallant pure knights we think we are.
I found most of my learning came from the description of the evolution of Hitchens’ own opinions. In a process that mirrors my own in many respects, Hitchens starts from a Trotskyite and ends up at a position most of us would describe as right wing through his support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hitchens would beg to differ with that right wing label, but that’s the whole point of his book: there is a lot to learn from his development and from his thought process.
No, I do not agree with Hitchens on matters such as Iraq. While there may have been valid reasons for invading the country, those were not the reasons that led the Coalition forces there, and these wrong reasons have a lot to do with the way things ended up. I do, however, agree with Hitchens that as much as most non Americans like to criticize the USA, it is the USA that is primarily responsible for sorting out many of the world’s wrongs (say, former Yoguslavia). It may do so too late, it may do so reluctantly, but alas – it is the only entity that can do so, and because of that we should give it some credit.
My reviews are meant to be personal, and this last point on the USA is the link to the personal side of Hitchens’ touching me with his story. I know I am flattering myself badly here, but after reading Hitch-22 I think I can confidently state Hitchens and I hold a lot in common. We may disagree on things, but we tend to perform analytics in a similar manner; then again, many other people do so, too. Where the similarities between us are sharper is in our common background, with both of us being Jewish according to many people’s reckonings (in Hitchens’ case, there are additional racial/religious tags that can be pinned on the person). Through differing circumstances, both of us felt obliged to face that Jewish question, and both of us arrived to very similar conclusions: we are both vocal atheists (can anyone be more vocal than Hitchens there?), we both acknowledge the effect that Jewish element had on us, and we share common views regarding the State of Israel.
The similarities continue to the relocation department, which is where I will tie the USA thread of the discussion. Both Hitchens and I got to a stage where, through roughly similar circumstances, we realized we are living at the wrong country. And we both made a move, but the moves we made say a lot about the person that made them: Hitchens moved to the USA, the place he loathed through the Vietnam War but the place he recognized to be the most influential to be at; I, on the other hand, took the escape route to Australia. That choice of a path less traveled still resonates with me: I often wonder of the life that could have been lived in the USA and the person I would have become instead.
That difference of choice also summarizes the Christopher Hitchens self portrayed in Hitch-22. A man who cannot be half a heretic, a man who cannot stand the totalitarian whatever manifestation it may have, a man in love with life and struggling to make the world better as a result. It is a great pity I now have to start talking about him in past tense.
Overall: Hitch-22 is a very enjoyable ode to life written by a worthy veteran. 4 out of 5 stars.

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