Book Review: Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Published just after his death, this is a short book (or lengthy essay depending on how you look at it) about a man coming to terms with his own impending doom at the hands of lung cancer. Christopher Hitchens was a polemicist, a political commentator, an eloquent writer and deeply thoughtful human being who was just at home with a cutting remark against his opponents as he was with proseltyzing atheistic philosophy.

This is a poignant chronicle of the final months of the life of “The Hitch” yet far from being full of platitudes, “poor me” and outpourings of anger, it is often delightful and typically in Hitch fashion, darkly humorous. He laments the lost opportunity of writing the obituaries of life’s villains such as Josef Ratzinger (which is an amusing statement and one that only Hitch would dare to utter and no doubt would have utterly destroyed the character of the man). With the recent abdication of Ratzinger and the death of Margaret Thatcher, we all wish he would have lived that little bit longer to offer his choice words on those two events.

I had to chuckle at the early statement at the revelation that he would succumb to cancer, commenting that he found it “banal and rather predictable” almost as though he’d want to die of something amusing and unconventional to blind-side him and make the process a bit more interesting. Only The Hitch could say something like that, get away with it, and have you sympathising – not with his death – but with his irritation that it wasn’t something more memorable and less predictable.

He does not want you to take pity on him as he shares his journey and nor should you. It is commented in the foreward that he was a compulsive writer so this isn’t so much as an appeal for sympathy, nor for the desire to be thought of as a saint, but taking enjoyment to carry on doing something that he loves while he still can. He sometimes goes as far as berating himself for what he perceives to be moments of self-pity, even if they do not appear so to the reader.

Aware that as many religious figures had prayed for his recovery or to reach peace in the inevitable as gloated at his impending demise, he writes the most thorough deconstruction of prayer, the most convincing argument that it is not only useless but pointless and even contradictory to the religious philosophies of the factions that offer them.

It is rare that a chronicle of a dying can make you shed more tears of laughter than of sorrow but this, the last great work of Christopher Hitchens, does just that. Recommended reading for anybody with an interest in reflecting on our own mortality. The volume is unfortunately unfinished at the time of his death and it includes a collection of paragraphs and notes that would have been worked into free-flowing text. Despite this incomplete state, it is satisfying and had an afterword by his widow.

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