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Kim Jong-il & Vaclav Havel: What Would Hitch Think?

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Am I the only person outside North Korea and China who was saddened to learn of the Dear Leader's passing? At the risk of giving you the wrong idea, I confess a tiny part of me grieved for the death of Kim Jong Il this weekend in precisely equal measure with Vaclav Havel's. It was the part of me that, when important stuff happens in the world, wants to know what Christopher Hitchens thinks about it.

As if losing Hitch on Thursday weren't awful enough, Havel and Kim Jong Il then hammered home the irrefutable fact of his passing by doing likewise, reminding us that Christopher's death means we'll never know precisely what he thinks of theirs. Hitch's words have made me question my own views so often now that revising an opinion in light of reading his has become a slightly tedious inevitability. But even I never imagined myself being as saddened by the death of a nuclear-armed, isolationist dictator as by the father of east European pro-democracy who paved the way for the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

What makes it worse is knowing how disconsolate Hitch would be about missing out on all this. Not long after his cancer diagnosis ('so predictable and banal that it bores even me'), he pointed out that the worst part of coming to terms with terminal illness wasn't so much the realisation that the party's over, but that he was going to have to leave the party while it carried on without him. If he had known just how interesting the party was going to get this weekend, I'm willing to bet he would have poured himself another scotch and insisted on staying a while longer.

One of the most striking things about the avalanche of Hitch obituaries the past few days is how unashamedly partisan they are, ranging predictably from hagiography (the Observer) to borderline character assassination (the Times). Of course it's no surprise that a man as complex and contrarian as Hitchens should inspire such a divergence of opinion, and no one would be more delighted than him that some axe-grinding obituarists have abandoned all pretence of journalistic balance especially for him. One thing that all agree on, however, was Hitchens' legendary capacity for turning out impeccable, lavishly referenced commentary on unfolding events at the drop of a hat, usually after a long lunch washed down with strong waters of more than one strain.

As a proud Hitch Bitch I lapped up his every word, drunkenly filed or not. To mention just a couple of recent examples, as a sometime resident of Georgia I followed the Troy Davis death penalty case closely; immediately upon learning of Davis' execution, my first impulse was to know what Christopher thought about it. Barely an hour later he obliged with a dazzling exposition on how the United States' fondness for euthanising its own citizens placed it on a par with Iran, China and Sudan, carefully laying out the historical context for the country's steadfast attachment to the death penalty. Gaddafi's body was similarly warm when Hitchens was demanding to know why the international community had tacitly agreed to the killing, along with an expansive analysis of the diminishing returns derived from the slaying of despots and dictators.

But we can only guess at what he would have written about the passing of his comrade Vaclav Havel on the same weekend as his deadly foe Kim Jong Il. Both would be a golden opportunity - one I'm certain he wouldn't have passed up - to rail against 'the cliché of totalitarianism'. In 1988 Hitchens was in communist Czechoslovakia to attend one of Havel's 'Charter 77' committees, arriving in Prague determined to be the first visiting journalist to avoid any and all references to the Kafka-esque. Midway through the meeting, the secret police burst in wielding rubber truncheons and ferocious dogs, arresting him and his Trotskyite comrades. With his face pressed against the wall, Hitchens demanded to know the charge. "We don't have to tell you that," replied the policemen, to which Hitch responded: "Fuck, I'm going to have to mention Kafka after all."

Likewise he entered North Korea resolute in his determination to avoid mentioning Orwell's 1984. But the fact that the country was founded in the same year the book was published was impossible to resist: 'You almost think somebody gave Kim Il Sung a copy of 1984 in Korean and said "Do you think we can make this fly?"' (Watch him tell both stories here.) Totalitarianism was his sworn enemy, and not just because it precipitated an uncharacteristic descent into cliché.

Of course Hitchens reserved special ire for what he saw as the apotheosis of totalitarianism, famously referring to God in his debate with Tony Blair as a celestial dictatorship - "a kind of divine North Korea". He also noted more than once that in the shape of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, and his dead father Kim Il Sung - the "eternal president" - the celestial dictatorship was 'only one short of a trinity'. It was a nice line to be sure, but I always felt it proved little more than the fact that two is one less than three. Well, with the addition to the hereditary line of Kim Jong Un, North Koreans now have their trinity, and I for one would love to know what Christopher would be making of it all.