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A collection of fine writing and polemic,
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This review is from: Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays (Paperback)
Love, Poverty and War. Journeys and essays. By Christopher Hitchens.
Christopher Hitchens had a great way with words, both as writer and orator. He travelled widely as a tourist, war correspondent, lecturer and pundit and must have been the very best dinner party raconteur and name-dropper. He remains by far the most amusing of the `New Atheists'.
When he did his research and felt a passionate commitment to his cause his writing was unsurpassed. In his personal life he was mostly heterosexual with occasional bisexual moments and in his politics mostly liberal-left with occasional flirtations with the might of American militarism. America's military power, a force he abhorred and railed against as a young man, came to be hugely impressive to him after he became an American citizen, as the last chapter in this compendium of his `Atlantic', `Vanity Fair' and `The Nation' articles shows.
In 2003 he visited Abu Ghraib prison in the desert outside Baghdad shortly after Saddam's final defeat. He visited the "stinking little cells into which prisoners were packed like vermin" and he "badly wanted to leave". It is profoundly ironic that this same place became an American-run centre for abuse of Iraqi prisoners within a year of this article being published in Vanity Fair. Would Hitchens have rediscovered his `internationalist' sympathies had he lived longer?
The best writing here is in the early chapters. He can be witty and profound in the same paragraph. While there are moments of exaggeration and narcissism the bulk of his tales seem credible. But it is this first section, about his literary and political influences: Greene, Kipling, Kingsley Amis, Joyce, Proust, Byron and Trotsky that is the purest delight. His fine writing is matched by a great sensitivity and real affection for these, sometimes flawed, literary giants. These first reviews are perfectly balanced, they aim to inspire without adoration, to chide without rancour.
The next section on "Americana" is well observed, funny and astute. His attempt to drive a red Corvette down the old "Route 66", a road which no longer exists, allows him to stray into some of the stranger places and weirder mindsets of the least visited parts of the US. The famous song, `Route 66', urges him "Don't forget Winona". (He cannot find Winona as he drives through it and misses it when he turns back to check). Other reviewers here have mentioned the chapter on `Sunset' as a `must-read' but so too are his thoughts on Bob Dylan and Saul Bellow's masterpiece, Augie March.
Part two of this collection is called `Poverty'. It brings together his articles on the themes of material want, inequality and intellectual impoverishment. So America's creaking health care system and the ideology of the ersatz pseudo-radical, Michael Moore, both endure justifiable dissection and exposure.
Unfortunately, the chapter on David Irving is self-serving and incomplete. Hitchens's Los Angeles Times article of May 20, 2001, which is reproduced in this book, was written over a year after the famous British court case in which David Irving lost his libel claim against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books for publishing her book "Lying about the Holocaust". This book had accused Irving of `Holocaust denial'.
Hitchens once stated that Irving's historical arguments should be taken seriously and that Irving was "not just a fascist historian but a great historian of fascism". Rather than simply admitting his mistake, Hitchens tries to cobble together some semblance of a `free speech' defence for Irving. This gets Hitchens into an awful pickle. Hitchens concedes that Irving is unsavoury but only after an incident at the Hitchens' Washington house during which Irving makes a racist comment about Hitchens's daughter's "Aryan" (p261) features. His wife bans Irving from their home, so Hitch's next meeting with Irving had to be "in a neutral restaurant". Why he wanted another meeting is hard to understand. This article is atypical of Hitchens's work as it makes him seem muddled and slow to confront the truth. After all, the truth about Irving's `history' was clearly set out in Deborah Lipstadt's 1993 book published eight years before Hitchens's Los Angeles Times piece. So why is Hitchens here unable even to acknowledge the work of Deborah Lipstadt, the very author who defeated Irving in a British court? Hitchens is left scraping the bottom of his barrel. As proof of his services to anti-fascism he claims:
"..Irving had been associated with the British fascist movement led by Sir Oswald Moseley. In my hot youth I had protested at some of the meetings of this outfit...(p260)".
(Moseley's BUF lost the Battle of Cable Street in 1936. After exile in Ireland Moseley tried to return to politics in 1959 but never won another UK parliamentary seat. Christopher was born in 1949. Moseley had long been a spent force by the time Hitchens found his political voice.) The claimed active opposition between the two figures, used to underpin this assertion of anti-fascism, seems slightly contrived for someone who invites a known Holocaust-denier around to his house "for cocktails".
The third and final section deals with war, in particular the first Gulf war, 9/11 and its aftermath. While it does contain a good article on the plight of the Kurds, this is the weakest section of the book. By the time Hitchens wrote these later pieces he had become an American citizen by adoption, and like many new immigrants perhaps he wished to be seen as loyal to the mores of his new hosts. These articles, especially those reprinted from `The Nation', are rather uncritically gungho. Perhaps many of us were like that back then, but articles praising Paul Bremer and the genius "intellectual" US General John Abizied (..."violence from the other side can be a sign of progress"..) seem strange and very dated, given the way things have panned-out in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these collected articles are at least eight years old. Hitch clearly had a misplaced optimism that `new nation building' was proceeding apace.
George Galloway MP, another great orator, who debated with Hitchens several times, claims that Christopher Hitchens had the writing skills of "an angel" but had abandoned his old radicalism for a naÔve populism. There is some truth in this charge as Hitchens did indeed change from a Trotskyite to a `Bushite' during his political metamorphosis. Readers must judge the consistency of Hitch's `born again' political logic for themselves.
A measure of Hitch's influence can be gleaned from the vast number of glowing and affectionate obituaries that appeared in the days after his death. Some are by long-standing friends and colleagues who really knew him well. But there are many more from minor celebrities, claiming to have become firm friends and trusted confidants of Hitchens after what seems the most fleeting acquantaince. Hitch would have had great fun publicly un-hitching such shamelessly attached band wagons from his well-earned reputation.
He was a great writer with a fine intellect, we shall miss him. But he was a flawed genius and a flawed gem, however highly polished, does not fully deserve five stars. I'll give him four.