Bitingly logical

Published January 8, 2017

CHRISTOPHER Hitchens is one of those writers you are bound to come across if you’re an avid reader in English. Even though it’s been over five years since he died of oesophageal cancer, it still seems hard to accept that he’s no more. A staunch atheist, Hitchens refused to take solace in the afterlife, or other such religious concepts, to his last breath. His final book, Mortality, is an account of his end days while he was struggling with cancer, as well as an answer to those who were hoping that his illness might finally bring him into the fold of religion — or spirituality, for that matter.

He was a prolific writer who could write on a wide range of topics varying from politics and history to literature and culture; And Yet... is a posthumous collection of Hitchens’s columns, essays, and book reviews published for the first time in book form.

Hitchens can seamlessly annihilate iconic figures by force of sheer, clever logic. My first encounter with him was not through any of his essays, but his documentary Hells’s Angel in which he ripped Mother Teresa’s cult apart for promoting suffering instead of truly helping the poor. In a similarly unrelenting manner he takes up figures like Che Guevara, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton only to nullify everything we believe we know about them. Hitchens claims that “Much of the attraction of the (Guevera) cult has to do with the grace of an early and romantic death” and his emphasis on “the will” which was projected through stories of his body-building, sporting enthusiasm, and outdoor effort, but were, in fact, masking his constant struggle with asthma. He believes one way to de-trivialise Guevara’s legacy is to look at him as the founding figure of “magical realism”.

An insightful and entertaining collection of writings on life and the world at large

He is even more unforgiving towards Orhan Pamuk who, in his opinion, is nothing more than the West’s search for “a novelist in the Muslim world who could act the part of dragoman, an interpretative guide to the East”. However, it is quite evident that what Hitchens despises the most in Pamuk is his soft spot for the Islamists. Nevertheless, some of his critique on Pamuk is quite on point: “Pamuk’s literalism and pedantry are probably his greatest enemies as a writer of fiction; he doesn’t trust the reader until he has hit him over the head with dialogue and explanation of the most didactic kind.”

It is rather interesting to read Hitchens’s views on Hillary Clinton in the wake of her defeat by Donald Trump. Truth for Clinton is completely relative; all it needs is to “validate the myth of her striving and her ‘greatness’,” he writes. “Indifferent to truth, willing to use police-state tactics and vulgar libels against inconvenient witnesses, hopeless on healthcare, and flippant and fast and loose with national security: The case against Hillary Clinton for president is open-and-shut.” I cannot help but wish Hitchens were alive today to write on Trump’s victory.

He is full of admiration for people such as Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist working during WWII. She had an uncanny ability to make people spill their real thoughts when she talked to them; when she interviewed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after the war of 1971, she induced him to call Indira Gandhi “a diligent drudge of a schoolgirl, a woman devoid of initiative and imagination ... She should have half her father’s talent”. Upon reading this, according to Hitchens, Gandhi refused to attend a proposed peace agreement meeting and when Bhutto sent a diplomatic envoy to ask Fallaci to retract that part, she refused.

“The second element, namely a distinctive blend of fine leather, good tailoring, and club-land confidence, was of huge importance in appealing to American Anglophilia — perhaps most especially the sort of Anglophilia that had led the United States to clone the Office of Strategic Services, and later the CIA, from the British MI5 and MI6. [...] In the interim, however, British imperialism had come to a humiliating halt at Suez in 1956, as a direct consequence of President Eisenhower’s refusal to support the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt. Fleming had every reason to take this personally: the British prime minister at the time, Sir Anthony Eden, had gone at least temporarily insane and been forced to take a long rest — which he did at Goldeneye, Fleming’s private Jamaican retreat.”— Excerpt from the book

His essay on Ian Fleming is perhaps the best analysis I’ve read of the author as well as his character James Bond. Hitchens disparages “the glaring lacunae, the amazing stupidity of the supposedly mastermind villains, and the reckless disregard for his own safety that this supposedly ice-cold agent displays by falling for every lure”. However, Hitchens is not hesitant to admit that “If Fleming had not been quite a sadist and narcissist and all-around repressed pervert, we might never have got to know Rosa Klebb or Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld” who are brilliant villains, no doubt.

This collection does not just comprise of character sketches, but also includes essays on topics such as Christmas, patriotism, self-grooming, imperialism, etc. Hitchens hated Christmas most deeply: “I used to harbour the quiet but fierce ambition to write just one definitive, annihilating anti-Christmas column and then find an editor sufficiently indulgent to run it every December ... But I have slowly come to appreciate that this hope was in vain. The thing must be done annually and afresh.” There are two essays in this collection which criticise the Christmas season for its “atmosphere of a one-party state” where one is forced to participate in the festivities.

Hitchens moved to the United States “partly to escape the British royal family” and partly because it was much easier to be an independent writer in a country with a codified Bill of Rights. Being an immigrant himself he wondered, “What does it take for an immigrant to shift from ‘you’ to ‘we’?” When he visited Kashmir he was so mesmerised by its beauty that he claimed, “although human beings will always fight over the most arid and desolate prizes, there are some places so humblingly beautiful that it is possible to imagine dying for them oneself”. Nevertheless, he was a stern believer that “internationalism is the highest form of patriotism”.

As resolute a socialist and champion of basic human rights as an atheist, he raised his voice against the warrantless surveillance of American citizens in 2006 before Julian Assange made the matter popular with WikiLeaks.

A stalwart essayist, Hitchens can be a little intimidating at times because while reading him, one cannot help but wonder how one man could possibly have such a deep understanding of nearly everything worth knowing. However, he knows well how to balance the most serious of topics with his witty observations on the mundane aspects of life. The series of three essays titled ‘On the Limit of Self-Improvement’ are undoubtedly the highlight of this superb collection — when his friends tell him it’s high time he took better care of his body and became a healthier person, he ventures on a series of experiments including body wraps, body grooming, and working out. Ever the rebel, he says: “Something in me evidently resists, or wants to resist, joining any good-behaviour club that will have me as a member.” The male version of the Brazilian wax is called a sunga, Hitchens informs us. When he went to get his very own sunga he found “The combined effect was like being tortured for information that you do not possess”. In the end he declares, “It’s enough to be born once, and to take one’s chances, and to grow old disgracefully” and believes that when he dies, it would be of sheer boredom.

In short, And Yet... is a collection of superior prose that will make you ponder over some of the essential questions of our times, reconsider things you take for granted, and make you laugh out loud on many occasions.

The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer and critic.

And Yet...
By Christopher Hitchens
Atlantis Books, UK
IBSN: 978-1782394563

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 8th, 2017



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