Thursday, July 15, 2010

Buruma on Hitchens

Ian Buruma's review of Christopher Hitchens' memoir captures better than anything I ever remember reading a lot of what I find vaguely unlikeable about his work, regardless of his politics on a given issue. Highlights:
It was then, however, in the mid-1960s, that the “exotic name” of Vietnam began to dominate the evening news. He was shocked by what he heard about this war, and when the British government refused to withhold support for “the amazingly coarse and thuggish-looking president who was prosecuting it,” he, Christopher Hitchens, began “to experience a furious disillusionment with ‘conventional’ politics.” He continues: “A bit young to be so cynical and so superior, you may think. My reply is that you should fucking well have been there, and felt it for yourself.”

To which one might well reply: Been where? Cambridge? And why the sudden hectoring tone? Clearly, even then, doubt would never get a look in once a cause was adopted.

IS had about one hundred members, but, Hitchens writes, had “an influence well beyond our size.” The reason for this, it seems, was that “we were the only ones to see 1968 coming: I mean really coming.” Again the self-referential choice of words is remarkable. Not the students in Prague, Paris, Mexico City, or Tokyo, not even the Red Guards in Beijing—no, it was the members of the International Socialists at Oxford who really read the times.

A more charming (though for some readers perhaps rather cloying) byproduct of this concentration on small bands of loyal comrades is Hitchens’s near adulation of his friends, all famous in their own right. Martin Amis, James Fenton, and Salman Rushdie merit chapters of their own.


One of the weaknesses of the chapter on Hitchens’s journalistic exploits in Poland, Portugal, Argentina, and other places is that he never seems to be anywhere for very long or meet anyone who is not either a hero, someone very famous, or a villain. One longs to hear the voice of an ordinary Pole, Argentinian, Kurd, or Iraqi. Instead we get Adam Michnik, Jorge Luis Borges, Ahmad Chalabi, all interesting people, but rather exceptional ones. One misses all areas of gray, all sense and variety of how life is lived by most people.
For the polar opposite of this piece, click here. For all his faults, though, Hitchens remains quite an entertaining writer, and we wish him a speedy recovery from cancer.


Thesauros said...

vaguely unlikeable??

pc said...

I mean vaguely like broadly, not like I cant figure out why...but yeah not a great choice of modifier.