Dissident President

To the Castle and Back
Vaclav Havel, Translated by Paul Wilson
Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95, 400 pp.

It is always a pleasure to read Vaclav Havel. His new book displays all the evocative language, philosophical arguments, and ironic twists familiar from his earlier works. More autobiographical than The Power of the Powerless (1990) and Disturbing the Peace (1990), To the Castle and Back gives Havel’s account of his journey from dissident-in-chief to head of state during the Velvet Revolution of 1989-and the turmoil that followed. Hardly a conventional memoir, its three intermixed narratives are at first as disorienting as his role reversal-which dismayed his wife Olga as much as himself. Vaclav was hardly suited to be president of anything.

Playwright, essayist, pub crawler, provocateur, womanizer, dissident, and intermittent prisoner of the Czechoslovakia Socialist Republic, Havel-as leader of the major dissident organization known as the Civic Forum-was called on by his comrades to negotiate the end of the Communist government in 1989. He eventually became president (1989-2003), and was frequently targeted by what he calls the “snide brigade”: the media, fellow politicians, and disgruntled Czechs. Amid the shifting sands of nation rebuilding, he became the “dissident” president, insisting on the same principles of fairness, equality, tolerance, and common sense-in other words, “living in truth,” the by-words that framed his opposition to totalitarianism. This “strange little book,” as he calls it, captures...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.