Dissident President

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 all the paradoxes of getting what you hoped for and then taking responsibility for it.

There are three narratives in To the Castle and Back, and, as it were, three characters-all named Vaclav Havel.

First, there is a diary he kept from April 7, 2005, while a resident scholar for two months at the Library of Congress in Washington, to January 5, 2006, when he was home in Prague. Its entries read like daily exercises in which the author warms up in preparation for writing a book. The former president of Czechoslovakia has happily escaped to Washington to write. Yet he confronts one obstacle after another: he can’t get down to work; he can’t concentrate; he’s exhausted. And...he is having a good time at the parties held in his honor. His compatriot and good friend Madeleine Albright organizes soirees in which his English miraculously flows as freely as the liquor. Hangovers are mentioned. He loves chatting with Washington’s movers and shakers (thankfully not part of the snide brigade). He marvels at how hard Americans work (all day!), how kind we are, how good our teeth are, and how much gum we chew. He likes us-unabashedly and uncritically. No wonder he is everyone’s favorite party guest. The diary ends more darkly with fatigue, illness, and bad weather-but the book (this book) is completed, and titled in Czech, Prosnim Strucne, “Please Be Brief.”

The second narrative concerns the detritus of political office. His laptop, which he is haphazardly rummaging through on April 11, 2005 (the episode is in the Washington diary), offers grist for the beleaguered writer: the facts, events, requests, failures, outrages, and thank-yous that were part of his daily presidential drill are amazingly there for the cutting and pasting. “Stashed away, unbelievably [on my laptop, are] several thousand pages of instruction that I wrote...to my staff.... I’ve decided to splice some excerpts from these ancient memos into this book.”

These selections are by turns obscure, funny, insightful, poignant, and peevish. A “rebel” used to independence in thought and action, Havel accepts the constraints of office outwardly with self-deprecating good manners. But finally, he is a playwright, and much that he includes from the computer’s memory conjures one of Havel’s plays, in which he scurries from one subplot to another, issuing stage directions as he goes. He struggles over his speeches, which he alone writes, but which must be vetted and translated by others. He must keep disparate bodies-governmental and otherwise-moving forward in the precarious transition to democracy. He is alert to the reemergence of Communist-era attitudes, while criticizing the crony capitalism and mean-spiritedness taking hold in post-Communist society. On the more domestic front of Prague Castle: The food for guests is unacceptable, and the desserts are too large; there is a bat in one of the closets; in 1990, he had to parry and thrust with the castle staff, who thwarted his efforts to open the castle to visitors, concealed whole rooms and kept certain artifacts from his use, and charged for ironing his shirts. Does this sound like Groucho Marx as president of Freedonia? Havel withstood the rigors of office by reveling in its absurdity, more Duck Soup than presidential protocol.

The third narrative is shaped by questions from the journalist Karel Hvizdala, his interlocutor in Disturbing the Peace. Havel’s answers are crisp and corrective; they constitute an apologia (pro vita publica sua)-explanations, corrections, and second thoughts, along with the deconstruction of the conspiracy theories that dogged his presidency. There is a lot to explain. A new government was formed in the core of the old Communist one. What deals were made? (None, and they still had the guns.) The Communists did not disappear but morphed into a normal political party. New parties emerged, some of dubious purpose, some organized by his former comrades. (That’s democracy.) There was no “de-Bathification,” to use a contemporary term, and Communist Party bureaucrats remained in office. A new constitution was quickly written, then rewritten, and rewritten again. In time, Czechoslovakia itself disappeared, splitting into its constituent nations, the Czech Lands and Slovakia. A socialist economy was dismantled-often to the benefit of its former Communist overseers and to the detriment of those who had suffered under them. In other words, the Czech Republic became a “normal” post-Communist nation with the normal measures of good, bad, and banal. Haval pressed his fellow Czechs to higher moral ground. “Getting even” was not the answer, resentment not the appropriate emotion. His popularity waxed and waned, but he was reelected. Were the Czechs afraid not to reelect him, lest they lose the lodestar to a decent future?

Havel was a public intellectual of international repute as much for his compelling language as for winning the long struggle against totalitarianism. In the heady days of the Velvet Revolution, he brought his intellectual and theatrical skills to the task. After joining the transitional effort, he traveled almost immediately to the USSR, where Mikhail Gorbachev questioned him closely and concluded that they could work together. Havel instantly whipped out a statement declaring a new relationship between the two countries. Gorbachev read it and dumped the traditional “treaty of friendship.” Thus fell one piece of the Iron Curtain. Early in 1990, Pope John Paul II arrived for a hastily arranged visit; Havel welcomed him “among us sinners.” They sized each other up. “Every conversation I had with the pope,” Havel writes, “was like confession. And always, after this confession and the implied absolution that went with it, I felt as though I had been born anew.” Royal visitors came and went, along with elected officials, rock stars, and religious leaders. The welcomes and proceedings were crafted by the president himself. Thoughtful, far-ranging speeches were the signature of his tenure in office.

Time wore on, as did the tribulations of office and life; in the late 1990s he suffered bouts of cancer and pneumonia. Olga, his own lodestar, died in 1996 and there followed an unpopular second marriage. Former friends and co-conspirators questioned his motives and decisions. Did his temperament suit him for politics? Was he tough enough? In spite of his vigorous opposition to totalitarianism and his willingness to go to prison rather than accept exile in the Communist era, Havel insists he detests chaos and disorder, and prefers negotiation to confrontation. While compromise is always possible, he insists that it cannot be at the price of violating one’s own conscience. Perhaps his was not a politics as usual.

Outsiders cannot wholly comprehend the fraught relationship between Havel-as-president and his fellow Czechs, nor are we privy to the currents of political life in a nation whose moral life was leeched away by lies, and whose president regularly and candidly spoke of this problem to his fellow citizens. Living in truth was what he preached as a dissident, and it is what he preached as president. We know from experience how rare that is. Whatever his political shortcomings in office, at least in this, the Czechs were privileged to have Vaclav Havel as president.

Published in the 2007-05-04 issue: 
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Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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