Christopher Hitchens' latest book, and his last unless he evolves into the literary equivalent of Tupac Shakur, concerns his death.
Mortality By Christopher Hitchens Hachette Book Group, 104 pp 473 baht at Kinokuniya
A slim volume of seven chapters plus a collection of unfinished paragraphs and thoughts, Mortality is simultaneously the easiest and hardest to read of Hitchens' books. Easiest because while his wit, insight and intelligence are still obvious, there are few of the tortuous sentences and passages he liked to show off with. Hardest because even though his brash prose, journalistic bravado and magnetic ego can be found on every page, this is clearly the work of a dying man whose powers were waning.
Hitchens died on Dec 15 last year, less than 19 months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 oesophageal cancer. He notes how, before being diagnosed with the disease, he often "came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse".
He goes on to explore the topic of cancer, and death in general, in his inimitable way, touching on language, religion, torture, poetry and pioneering medical treatment.
The seven chapters are expansions or revisions of columns he wrote for Vanity Fair, where he was a contributing editor and star columnist since 1992. Hardcore Hitchens fans will have read much, if not most, of Mortality in that magazine or online. The eighth "chapter" consists of fragmentary jottings but contains few highlights, only hinting at what he might have written had he lived longer or been able to accomplish more during his terminal decline.
Mortality, like Hitchens' 62 years of life, is all too brief yet bursting with ideas, passion and vigour. A man of voracious appetites, for reading, writing, smoking, drinking, conversation, argument and more, he tried to get the most out of life _ and death. His wife, Carol Blue, writes in the afterword of how "he insisted ferociously on living [...] His will to keep his existence intact, to remain engaged with his preternatural intensity, was spectacular". Hitchens insisted he wanted to "do" death "in the active and not in the passive sense" and "to be spared nothing". This determination, along with his stance against gods and religions, does not appear to have wavered in the slightest.
Hitchens never allows himself to wallow in pity or succumb to maudlin or macabre descriptions of hospitals, patients and procedures. At least, he doesn't do so on these pages.
There is humour to be found, often at his own expense, and arguably the best chapter mixes this with poignancy as he wonders whether there should be a book written on cancer etiquette. A fanciful passage about a grandmother with "terminal melanoma of the G-spot" who recovered to climb Mount Everest caused an eruption of laughter: quite a feat for a dying writer tackling such a weighty subject.
There is also anger here, most notably directed against religious zealots who not only disagreed with his strident atheism but cheered and jeered at his grim diagnosis. "What if I pulled though and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating."
Blue notes in the afterword that Mortality is not the full-length treatment Hitchens had imagined writing on the subject. Instead, it is really seven essays on a single theme. Packaged to form a bookend to his career, some of these passages rank among the best example of his work.
As a book, Mortality feels unfinished. It lacks a meaningful conclusion from the author himself and perusing the final chapter of unfinished thoughts makes one feel almost voyeuristic. But, like the best of Hitchens' work, it will provoke a reaction, debate and maybe even further thought.
While there are no descriptions of what it is like to die, we have been given some insights into what the process of dying is like. More than anything, Hitchens wrote about human life, yet with his last words he reminded us of our mortality. This book is about life, and how _ even if we shouldn't drink and smoke so much as to effectively encourage cancer _ we should live it.
About the author
Writer: Michael Ruffles