Monday, 3 February 2014

Dulce et decorum est

Mortality (2012) was published shortly after author Christopher Hitchens’ death from cancer in December 2011. In this slender volume, Hitchens serves as correspondent from “Tumourtown” describing the ups and downs of his battle with cancer as he rages against the dying of the light.

He begins with the diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus, a disease that claimed his father, and progresses through various treatments – chemotherapy, radiation – describing in detail the physical toll taken by this disease. While he is being treated he continues to live life as much as he can; keeping to engagements and documenting his illness in a series of articles for Vanity Fair

One of the most powerful chapters is related to his voice and how he lost it during treatment. For an orator and storyteller, this was an unexpected blow.  He describes the human ability to “deploy vocal communication for sheer pleasure and recreation, combining it with our two other boasts of reason and humour to produce higher syntheses”. 

Hitchens has long been my favourite writer and I greatly mourned his passing. When asked what I liked about his writings, I would recount the interesting topics, controversial views (of which I did not always agree) and his keen, subversive wit. In reading Mortality, Hitchens described precisely my thoughts when he wrote, “the most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed.” I have always felt that reading Hitchens is like engaging in an engrossing conversation with an old friend. He was larger than life, and as I read, his voice comes through the page.

Having recently read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die (2009), as I read Mortality I thought of the interesting conversations the two authors would have had together as they compared notes on cancer and the wellness industry. I imagine it would be a robust and raucous discussion.

Hitchens’ wife Carol Blue wrote a fitting afterword in which she described the loss of her husband. She states that Christopher always had the last word. Mortality is his last word, and one I will savour.