Book review - Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, who died last December, became best known for his fierce polemics against religion. In his final collection of essays, cancer of the oesophagus is the enemy: "the blind, emotionless alien" that ravaged his body, robbed him of speech and affected his ability to write.

Hitchens acknowledged that his alcoholism and heavy smoking probably contributed to his illness: "I have been 'in denial' for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends … taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction." He does not rail at his condition or curse his bad luck, but instead finds himself "oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste." He wistfully describes entering "the land of malady" where "the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited." For such a hedonist, the "banality of cancer" must have been hard to endure.

Although these final pieces are characteristically self-centred (there is scant mention of the wife and children he left behind) Hitchens is never self-pitying. He records with mild amusement the bilious remarks of one of "the faithful" who sees his condition as divine retribution for his blasphemy. He also finds humour in the response of well-wishers: the CDs sent to him, he remarks wryly, were often by Leonard Cohen. He reproduces in full the conversation he had with a female fan who had witnessed the agonising death of a friend and so, she assures him, knows "exactly" what he is going through.

When the cancer attacks his voice and he becomes "like a silly cat that had abruptly lost its meow", his stoicism finally begins to waver. He describes the deprivation as "the amputation of part of the personality". It is the cruellest of blows for a man whose voice and debating skills were legendary and it leaves him longing for a remission, for "the freedom of speech" to return.

Writing was Hitchens's great consolation and, as to be expected, this account of his final year of "living dyingly" is searingly honest. As death came inexorably closer and his body filled with pain, he became fearful about his diminishing powers of reflection. Finally, an "arduous awareness" replaced his customary fire and sharp wit. He longed only for relief, and all he could do was "wait for the next fix".

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday