816 pages, Twelve, ISBN-13: 978-0771041419
We should all be grateful that, when Christopher Hitchens was told that he didn’t much time to live, he chose to leave us with Arguably, a book of essays, for what became his final effort (and if by chance you haven’t ever read Mr. Hitchens and would like one book to stand as a proxy for his life’s work, let it be this). Arguably is a compendium of short brilliant gems, intended for either the lay or the professional reader, that comes together to form a thesis about the variations on human activity put together by a literary descendent of Emerson, H.L. Mencken, and Paul Goodman. No human activity on any subject is too small to warrant his attention.
Hitchens has the ability to present the past in such a way as to leave the general reader exclaiming “shouldn’t this be the way we handle the present?” For example, in the essay Jefferson Versus The Muslim Pirates, there is not a single mention of 21st Century pirates operating out of mother ships, and yet every reader will make a connection between the Barbary pirates and our current circumstances. His ability to explain the past happens just outside the mother ship of current events and he leaves it to the reader to connect the two. Other essays reduce to a simplicity that have the reader wondering, in the case of a nation trafficking, Hitchens believes, in human bondage like North Korea, why immediate international pressure of the kind that ended apartheid in South Africa isn't brought to bear to end the regime of Kim Jung-Il. On the other hand, if you thought The Big Sleep had a complicated plot (4 viewings to resolve what Eddie Mars had on Lauren Bacall) you may be dazed and confused by his review of the film The Baader Meinhof Complex, although even that sorts out understandably: Nazi Fascism versus Stalinist Communism.
There are some essays, like Vietnam Syndrome, where Hitchens abandons all mental and literary gymnastics in favor of the E.M. Forester axiom: only connect. He believes the legacy of environmental poisoning there is so dire a story that he begs for the reader’s attention and is willing to make presentations as graphic as they are disturbing to get it. In literary matters, he can lift the veil of contemporary hype, and with a few deft strokes penetrate an entire phenomena (Stieg Larsson) or he can debunk the courtly mannerisms of one of the world’s greatest authors (John Updike). The Swastika And The Cedar has an action angle that is cinemagraphic (this is a voice not content to write about events and not above participating in them).