Published by Twelve
Publication date: September 4th 2012
This is the first time (and I hope the last) that I am reviewing a book published posthumously. Christopher Hitchens was a British writer, journalist and public speaker; a highly intelligent man with very strong opinions. As an atheist, he offended a large number of people with his opinions but while you may not have agreed with him, he never wrote out of emotion but used research and intellect to make his point. In 2010 he was diagnosed with cancer of the thorax and for many religious folk it was confirmation that they were right so they made much of their ‘victory’ with emails and discussions in public forums saying that not only was there a God but that Hitchens was being punished for his lack of faith. I could launch into a rant about this sort of thing but instead will stick with the matter at hand: his final book, Mortality.
On December 15, 2011 Hitchens died of thoracic cancer. In this slender volume he writes of the journey from diagnosis to dying, in all its inelegance and pain. However, much as he lived his life, this is an unsentimental, unvarnished look at dealing with cancer. As a man who never minced his words he tramples over the euphemisms and niceties used by the world to deal with what is an unfathomable situation.
This is not a book that will comfort nor, if you ever read any of Hitchens’ work, would you expect it to. What you will find, instead, are the last words of a great mind, trying to make sense of what’s happening outside that mind; what cannot be learned or understood or tamed by knowledge. This was a man for whom language was everything, so a statement such as this one, after losing his voice from proton therapy:
What do I hope for? 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.
is all the more poignant and heartbreaking. Equally so, is the afterward by Carol Blue, Hitchens’ wife. There the sadness is palpable and yet, like her husband, her eloquence is profound. Mortality is just that, a reminder of our impermanence, written by one for whom the word was all.
I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true.