To see Christopher Hitchens in the full flow of an argument is a spellbinding experience. The first time I saw this, at a large hall in London, five academics and writers with politically correct opinions were insisting that it was wrong to attack Iraq. They were so convinced of their views, combining emotion, pragmatism, the law, and realpolitik, that they simply did not see the compelling moral and legal case Hitchens developed. The lop-sided majority against him did not bother him then; the overwhelmingly hostile audience didn’t faze him either. With his booming voice, eloquence, wit, erudition and command of facts and references, he held his own. The audience thought it won—unless you asked them privately what they really thought.
The other time was at Politics and Prose, a bookshop in Washington, DC, where Hitchens was talking about his book god is Not Great, the “g” in god deliberately not capitalized. A well-groomed man in white shirt and khaki trousers with neatly combed hair got up to challenge him, saying Hitchens’ criticism of scriptures was wrong. Hitchens relished the moment: He correctly guessed the questioner was a Mormon—and then he cited, chapter and verse from the book the Mormon held dear—and told him that if he were to be true to his beliefs, he’d have to believe in slavery.
Hitch-22:Atlantic Books, 424 pages, Rs599
As command performances go in the battle between atheists and believers, most people turn to the episode from the second season of The West Wing, when President Bartlet demolishes a talk show host by citing Bible scriptures that show the inherently discriminatory and cruel aspects of the faith.
That was fiction; I’ve seen the real thing.
Hitchens’ long-time friend Ian McEwan is right: “If Hitchens didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to invent him,” he says in the blurb attributed to him at the back of god is Not Great. This polymath man of letters, the Orwell of our times, faces off challengers with consummate ease. To the 10 books, four pamphlets, and four collections of essays he has published, Hitchens has now added a memoir, Hitch-22, in which he recounts the engrossing story of his life with verve and passion.
Hitchens tells the fascinating intellectual journey of a young boy, strongly influenced by his mother who he deeply loved. In the moving chapter, Yvonne, he describes her as “she was the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari, the offer of wine or champagne instead of beer, the laugh in the face of bores and purse-mouths and skinflints, the insurance against bigots and prudes”. The memory of her tragic death (she took her life) has haunted him. She was “much less British than my father but wanted above all for me to be an English gentleman. You, dear reader, be the judge of how well that worked out.” But he has followed her wish; he has lived his life well, challenging dogmas and skewering charlatans. He has been unsparing to flawed presidents such as Bill Clinton, ends-over-means realists such as Henry Kissinger, and religious icons such as Mother Teresa.
Hitchens is supremely confident of his argument, exploring the limits of thought and ideas, loving the power of words, displaying an erudition that can inspire schoolchildren to write better prose, and he has absorbed the collective wisdom of our times with a voracious appetite. But he was not a bookish nerd at Oxford who spent all his waking hours on mahogany desks at a library. Hitchens grasped the experiences life offered, and standing in solidarity with those less fortunate. He has stayed consistent; it is his erstwhile allies who have changed.
Born in a society where class and privilege matter, Hitchens lives up to his mother’s expectations, going to a private school and working hard to get to Oxford. At Balliol, he will join the picket against a hairdressing salon, which will not serve black women, and he will organize protests against a foreign secretary who defends the war in Vietnam. He will go to Cuba with other young socialists to learn about Castro’s experiment with communism, only to be dismayed when he finds the hypocrisy of a regime built on lies.
He builds lifelong friendships with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, James Fenton (to whom the book is dedicated), and Salman Rushdie (who he defends and stands by during the worst, lonely days of the fatwa), and laments the descent into populism and humbug of people he once thought he had common cause with—Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky. The atmosphere he creates of the literary London of the 1970s, of the table where the great and the good critics met, is vivid; the spontaneous wordplay that emerges at those meetings, including risqué puns and ribald poetry, entertaining. Example: Hitchens remembers how Robert Conquest compressed the history of Bolshevism in a limerick:
“There was an old bastard named Lenin
Who did two or three million men in
That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
That old bastard Stalin did ten in.”
Hitchens, as you can see, is a terrific raconteur. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly: Kahlil Gibran’s prose is full of “bogus refulgence”, Kennedy is “a high-risk narcissist”, Salazar is “senescent”, Cuban government today “a wrinkled oligarchy of old Communist gargoyles”, and Stokely Carmichael “a charismatic incendiary”.
It is an axiom in politics that no political party splits as often as does the Communist Party: the smaller the issue at stake, the deeper the division. Hitchens has no hesitation talking about his leftist past—and, as he reminds in an interview recently in the New Statesman, he is not a conservative either—and he provides a crystal clear view of the divisions within the Left, from where it is easy to see its pitiful lurch towards the position where it has become an ally of Islamic extremists today.
Hitchens has been a contrarian, a debater, and a thinker who stresses that it is absurd to balance between good and evil. He has enriched the intellectual life of our times like few others have. Today, he is fighting for his life. Modern science is helping him. If that, and fighting spirit are enough, cancer stands no chance.
Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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