Villatumor, March 2011
The itinerary told me that the flight would last a little over ten hours, and the boarding pass, which corresponded to seat 58F, which was located just before – or even parallel to or actually on the other side – of the class toilets tourist. There was no cause for complaint in it. Even more conducive to confusion and dismay was the fact that the public address system did not stop calling me “client.” At American Airlines, passengers – and I suspected that, in general, all airlines in that country – were now called customers. The plane is full, so we ask our customers to vacate the aisles as soon as …
This was new, and it was the norm (even the commander commented on it) for the sake of the comfort and safety of our clients; To the occupant of 58F, on the other hand, it sounded like a clear degradation … It is still today the day that I remember the leftist, the ascetic, the anti-capitalist – or, if you prefer, the bad money – that I felt on that trip (only the ticket costs several thousand pounds), and out of self-respect I wanted to stop being a customer to be a passenger again.
Well, the fact is that I was in the process – already quite advanced – of moving house, from the Country of the Roses to the Country of the Free1. When I came to visit, I always felt at ease in the United States; now that I would soon be residing there, I felt like someone who is visiting … from another planet. How strange the United States suddenly seemed to me!
It was March 2011, a full nine months from the diagnosis. She had seen Christopher regularly at this time, sometime in New York, but mostly in the District of Columbia. I’d hop on the train from Penn Station to Washington Union, take a cab to the Wyoming Tower across from Dupont Circle, ride the elevator to the sixth floor, and pluck up my courage for when the door opens to show me the last changes my friend had undergone. There were always changes, not to mention the continuous escapes to hospital rooms, consultation rooms, treatment rooms and, above all, waiting rooms …
We soon learned that the cancer had metastasized (some secondary tumors had colonized “a small piece of the lung as well as a good part of the lymph nodes”); furthermore, the clavicle tumor was already “palpable”, both to the touch and to the eye. It took a little longer to determine the origin and establish the verdict: esophageal cancer, stage IV. “And, as Hitch was quick to add, there is no V stage.” The chemo had done its best and now, having accepted a more advanced and aggressive proposal, Christopher had enrolled as an outpatient at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.
That’s where I was heading. On a flight punctuated by long intervals of unbridled turbulence (with the rear of the plane bobbing like a muscular bulldog about to let go for a romp). The experience, then, of being seated and tied to seat 58F was onerous as well as unpleasant, but not as onerous and unpleasant as being tied up inside a proton therapy synchrotron, which was the next recourse and torture to which he went. to submit Christopher.
First, the past and the end of Yvonne
During that trip Martin wore the Hitch-22 On her lap, she was rereading the pages on the fate of Mrs. Yvonne Hitchens.
Hilly’s had been a sweet transit; She had died in her Andalusian farmhouse, cared for by two affectionate daughters-in-law (one of them a professional nurse); and he was already over eighty years old. Yvonne, on the other hand, had died of unnatural causes in a Greek hotel, with the corpse of a man in the next room; he was in his forties. Hilly’s death appeared in the press, in the obituaries section; Yvonne’s on the front pages.
Christopher recounts that one morning in November he was in bed “with a wonderful new girlfriend” when he received a call from an old girlfriend (obviously super wonderful). He asked him if he had listened to the BBC the day before: they had given a short statement about a woman with the same last name who had been found murdered in Athens. After learning a few details (in particular, the full name of Yvonne’s travel companion), the former girlfriend said, “Oh God, I’m so sorry, but it’s very likely your mother.”2
The corpse in the next room was the lover she had eloped with, a scrawny transcendentalist (and ex-priest) named Timothy Bryan.
It takes a bit of historical imagination to understand the magnitude of the calamity this brought to Eric, the father of Christopher, the faithful naval officer.
In a vital respect, Commander Hitchens continued to live in the Trollope civilization, the last of the great novelists to portray a world in which family scandal immediately led to social death. In that provincial and distressingly refined environment, the commander had resigned himself to the desertion of “a wife he adored,” but as they say in Hitch-22:
[E]In the social environment of North Oxford, the two had signed a pact. If they were invited for sherry or dinner, they would show up together as if nothing was happening. Now, everything had come to light at once – and to make matters worse on the first page – everyone knew it.
Eric Hitchens (also known as Hitch) was “a man who had long faced death as a means of life”; however, “the possibility of his going to Athens was not even considered and, in any case, I was already on my way […]”. He was already on his way. And that can be considered Christopher’s soundtrack: his compulsion to confront his fears without delay. We were at the end of November 1973.
On November 17 of that year, the Greek junta regime (a dictatorship, Christopher writes, “of sunglasses, torturers and steel helmets”) was overthrown: the fascist colonel Georgios Papadópoulos was replaced by a fascist general, Dimitrios. Ioannidis, and the new junta was the massacre dictatorship. In that scenario the last days of Yvonne Hitchens were inscribed.
And so we imagine the young Christopher as he fills out applications to the Athenian civil service (the scammer forensic doctor, the corrupt police commissioner), while secretly alternating with the opposition in hiding (survivors of beatings, friends with wounds from bullet who did not dare to go to a hospital). At one point, in a filthy student flat, he added his voice to that of his comrades to sing “La internacional” almost in a whisper …
Finally, Christopher received the report of the cause of death. He was not surprised and must have consoled him. In London he had invited his mother and his lover to dinner, and this was the impression that Timothy Bryan had made on him: “frail”, gifted for music, a proselyte of guru Maharishi. No, a murderer, no. And still less a suicide killer. Yvonne had made a pact with her husband; and he also made a pact with his lover: they used sleeping pills. Furthermore, Timothy, “whose need to die must be very great,” had slit his wrists in the bathroom. And Christopher was forced to assimilate another fact (which was to forever ramify into his mind): According to the hotel’s phone call log, Yvonne had repeatedly tried to contact him in London. That was the penultimate hit, but another was still missing.
Christopher begins the two filial chapters of Hitch-22 with a description of your first memory. In Athens he was twenty-four years old; here I had just turned three. The setting is the Grand Harbor of Valletta (the capital of Malta, a British colony with a naval base where the frigate captain serves). Christopher is aboard a ferry, intoxicated “by the jarring yet joined blues” of the Mediterranean. His mother is with him, and although he can run and explore the ship at will, she is always there, ready to hold his hand.
It’s the year 1952. That’s how it begins. And twenty-one years later …
[A] yes that’s how it ends. Finally they took me to the hotel suite where it all happened. Both bodies had to be removed and the coffins sealed before I arrived. That was for a grimly sordid reason: it had taken a while to discover the couple. The pain is so sharp and exquisite, and the decoration of the two rooms so unpleasant and tacky, that I hide my tears and my nausea by pretending to look for air in the window. And there, for the first time, I find a complete and overwhelming image of the Acropolis. For a moment, like the Berlin Wall and other famous sights seen for the first time, it almost resembles a memory on a postcard. But then it becomes totally authentic and unique. That temple must be the Parthenon, and it’s almost close enough to reach out and touch. The room behind me is full of death and darkness and depression, but suddenly, again and fully present, there is the brilliance, the glare and the intensity of the green, blue and white of the life-giving light and air of the Mediterranean. that gave me my first hope and confidence. I just wish I was holding my mother’s hand.3
Translation by Jesús Zulaika.
Excerpt from From inside, published courtesy of Anagrama.
1. The news of Hilly’s death reached me on a Tuesday (June 24, 2010); the news of Christopher’s cancer, just a week later; and the following Monday it was Elena and I who had (minor) news to give: we were moving from London to Brooklyn. It took us a year to get there, but in the meantime we came and went … The reason was simple: Elena wanted to be close to her mother, Betty (who was eighty-two, like Hilly) and I wanted to be close to Hitch (who was sixty-one). , like me).
2. I have a slight idea of how it must have felt. In December 1974 my cousin Lucy Partington did not return to her mother’s home in the town of Gretton, in Gloucester County (where I spent so many childhood summers). He had disappeared and soon there were posters with his image everywhere. Over time, on the inside, I was somewhat able to convince myself of the following: Lucy, who was twenty-one years old and highly intelligent, creative and religious, had deliberately disappeared (whatever her inscrutable reasons). Two decades later, in March 1994, his body, along with several others, was found buried in the “house of horrors” at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester: it had been one of the victims of Fred West, the serial killer (and a complete, absolute, riveted modern troglodyte). When I opened the tabloid and saw his photograph, I felt as if a furry beast had brushed my face with its breath. Lucy was my first cousin; Christopher was Yvonne’s first child.
3. Hitch-22: Confessions and contradictions, translation by Daniel Gascón, Barcelona, Debate, 2011. (N. del T.)