Vaclav Havel: author of his country

Source: The Australian / By Nicolas Rothwell /

A dramatist whose life’s course surpassed the wildest theatric plotlines, a dissident condemned by fate to lead his country, a political prisoner turned leader of a peaceful revolution, a romantic and a private, self-doubting man — Vaclav Havel, first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, might seem to require several distinct biographies. The measure of this new, definitive life, written by the Czech ambassador to London, Michael Zantovsky, is that its narrative successfully contains all these different Havels and sets them in a clear relationship to each other.

Vaclav Havel speaks to a crowd of demonstrators in Prague in 1988. Source: AFP









Zantovsky, who began his professional career as a clinical psychologist, was a founding member of the Civic Forum movement that overthrew the communist regime in Prague in November 1989, and he served for several years as Havel’s media secretary, studying his subject closely. “There was, mixed with the warmth and friendliness, a certain remoteness to his personality, a sense of detachment, an inner impenetrable core that you could never enter.”

And yet the bond between biographer and subject was unusually close. “My own relationship with Havel can best be described by a word that I use with the utmost reluctance,” writes Zantovsky in his prologue,

But if love means not just liking another person and enjoying his company, but caring for him, worrying about him, dwelling in one’s thoughts with him over considerable distances and periods of time, and being keen on his approval and reciprocation, then love it was. It was this bond that kept us together, and kept us going during the crazy early days of Czechoslovakia’s democratic transformation.

Love, though, is not necessarily the ideal qualification for the task of the biographer, as Zantovsky realises, and he seeks to summon up all his reserves of cool detachment in painting the portrait of his friend. The figure that emerges is flawed and heroic, idealistic and inconsistent: in short, Havel is presented as a character in the round. It can be easy, in retrospect, to see the writer-president’s trajectory to high office as almost inevitable, but the true record of his progress is retraced here, step by uncertain, wavering step.

He was born into the high Prague bourgeoisie. His family were property developers; his uncle built the vast Barrandov film studios. In the postwar communist era, this was a dark inheritance. Despite his literary inclinations, Havel was barred from attending university: it was military service for him, and the absurd world of state controls and regulations. Soon he found his way to the Cafe Slavia in downtown Prague, the centre, in those years, of the intellectual opposition. There he met Olga Splichalova, an older woman from a much less exalted background. They married. He betrayed her repeatedly, but for decades she remained the constant central figure and support of his life.

Zantovsky seeks an explanation of this clear pattern: loving dependence on female company, a need for guidance and a competing instinct to rebel against maternal authority, to flee. He also sets his hero in the context of the times that made him: the 1960s in Czechoslovakia, a decade when art, film, theatre and literature all flowered with a hot-house intensity. This era was the Prague Spring, when “the depressing greyness imposed by the regime on the ancient Czech capital began to lift”. Havel had apprenticed himself to the Theatre on the Balustrade, close by the city’s centre. His first plays were successful, and were performed extensively overseas. His reputation grew fast. He was involved in the production of stage works by Alfred Jarry and Samuel Beckett. He began writing for the avant-garde magazine Tvar.

Then, in August 1968, the tanks of the Red Army rolled into the streets of Prague. Spring gave way to winter. The Soviet-led invasion led to the restoration of hardline communist political control, and years of shadow for the country.

What space was there for political disobedience? What would be the point, against such odds? It was at this time that Havel wrote a private letter to the deposed reformist leader Alexander Dubcek. It contains the germs of the philosophy that became the basis for the entire Eastern European dissident movement. In that note, he argued that “even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance”.

It was a crossroads time for Havel: something in him impelled him to resist, to break silence, to refuse to give in. He thought and wrote his way forward: his words circulated widely. When the student protester Jan Palach burned himself to death in Wenceslas Square, Havel saw it as “a warning against the moral suicide of all of us”. When an experimental music group was put on show trial, he prepared a private report on the proceedings, which had much in common with a bleak modern farce: “Torn out of our routine humanity we stand once again face to face with the most important question of all: how to come to terms with ourselves?”

Soon he took the key role in forming and steering the Charter 77 protest organisation. He held a series of secret meetings with the Polish democratic opposition on a hiking track across the mountain border between the two countries. Above all, he wrote his detailed manifesto, The Power of the Powerless, a meditation on the ways in which moral values can survive under dictatorship. Havel had come to feel that oppression brought with it the chance to rebalance oneself, to find a new way to live.

Inevitably, he was becoming a figure of great interest to the security services. In May 1979, together with the leading oppositionists from the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted, he was arrested on a charge of subversion and sentenced to 4½ years in jail. It was his long, hard rite of passage. He was allowed to correspond with his wife: coded and discreet though they are, to pass the censors, these Letters to Olga remain Havel’s greatest literary achievement, and a key document of the struggle against totalitarianism. In them Havel seeks the horizon of life, he strives to discern the “mysterious order” in the world, and so affirm his identity. Released at last, but kept under stringent surveillance, he attempted to steer the dissident movement in changing circumstances and to maintain contacts with the wider world.

It was not until 1989 that the political landscape began to thaw, with accelerating speed. Zantovsky tries to catch the spirit of that November on the streets of Prague, when the revolutionary transformation of Eastern Europe reached its abrupt, joyful climax: “It was something quite unique, impossibly velvet and probably never to be repeated. What had been unimaginable one day was popular wisdom the next. What had seemed immutable and eternal turned out to be a fleeting episode. Overnight, people shed their fears, their protective camouflage and their restraints.”

It was a drama with twists and turns, but acted on the stage of life. To a degree unmatched in other parts of the crumbling Soviet empire, the Czechoslovak upheaval was scripted by a single man and performed by its author, its best lines improvised. Havel held court at the Magic Lantern theatre and managed the world’s media from the stage, even as he negotiated the transfer of power from the Communist Party to a new orde. The great reversal was swift: one meeting sufficed for the deal between Havel and the interim prime minister, Marian Calfa, providing for Havel to take the leadership of the newly democratising state and guide it on its road to a free politics.

As managed transitions go, it was smoothly executed: the communist deputies voted unanimously for the end of their own reign. Zantovsky is brisk in his account: “This was a parliament so used to taking orders it would have elected Dracula if told to do so by the government. With the spectre of hundreds of thousands of people marching at its gates, there was never a risk of its mustering a mind of its own.”

And so “people power” triumphed, central Europe lived through its golden days and a playwright was sent to Prague Castle as president. Havel’s literary ambitions and achievements were now eclipsed by his public role. His creative energies would have to be channelled into reforms, symbolic as much as practical. He had a country and a culture to bring back to life. Above all, he hoped to craft a viable, democratically based society; to rebuild the long-broken links between Czechoslovakia and the wider Western world.

He set to it with a will, and with the instincts of a theatre man. The emblems of state communism had to be done away with and replaced by something new. The assault music used for marches by the castle honour guard would no longer do. In consultation with the rock musician Michael Kocab, Havel hit on the idea of adapting the sprightly allegretto of Janacek’s Sinfonietta, which was very popular: it had even been sampled in the 1970s by the concept rock group Emerson Lake & Palmer. The grim Cold War era uniforms of the soldiers were intended to inspire apprehension. Havel turned for guidance to his friend Theodor Pistek, the Oscar-winning costume designer for Milos Forman’s film Amadeus. The new uniforms were sky blue, with white and red trimmings, to present ‘‘a friendly, non-threatening”’ version of the Hradcany Castle to the outside world.

The tone of the place shifted as well. During the long era of “actually existing socialism” the presidential offices had received a series of drab and uninspiring visitors from allied satellite states: it would be the Bulgarian minister for heavy industry one day, the Hungarian minister for armaments the next. Things now changed, in drastic fashion. The castle was reconceived as “an attractive European cultural and spiritual centre”. Visitors of a different stripe poured in: Harold Pinter, Lou Reed, the Polish pope John Paul II, even Frank Zappa, an old favourite of the Czech underground resistance, who found himself briefly appointed the roving envoy plenipotentiary in matters cultural and commercial for the new Czechoslovak republic.

These shifts went with a far more ambitious redesign of the nation-state. Havel had ridden the wave of a political upheaval all the way from his jail cell to the heights of national authority. Politics, though, was another matter. The Civic Forum he helped bring into being mutated into a parliamentary party, one among others. The revolution over, normal life resumed, and normal retail politics came with it.

There was little appetite for revenge against the communists of the old order — too many people had been complicit in the system for that. Instead, the centralised power matrix of the old regime gave way to a much more centrifugal kind of politics: it became clear that the old Czechoslovakia would split, by democratic decision, into two countries, and the sundering took place. Havel stayed at the helm of the Czech Republic for many years, but his great achievements were done. He was a philosopher-king presiding over a citizenry with rather different concerns: football teams, tourism, the pursuit of pleasure, self-enrichment.

Although Havel remained a statesman on the European stage, to his own countrymen he was becoming, even a decade after the Velvet Revolution, a figure from the past. In the wake of Olga Havlova’s death, he remarried: his new wife, Dagmar Veskrnova, was a young, strikingly attractive blonde actress who was fiercely lampooned by the tabloid media that was one of Czech freedom’s more ambiguous gifts.

Havel saw the bitter humour in his own story: he even wrote a play about a superannuated statesman grappling with his fate, and then pursued to fruition a bizarre project to film the drama with his wife in a leading role.

He was elected to a last term as president in 1998, but his health was already failing. Ever since his prison days he had been preoccupied by metaphysics and affairs of the spirit: these concerns now came to the fore. If he lacked a formal religious lean he was very much a man of faith who spoke repeatedly of the “absolute horizon to which we must refer, that mysterious memory of Being in which each of our acts is recorded and in which and through which they finally acquire their true value”.

In his last book, To the Castle and Back (2007), the writer seeks to make sense of his time in history’s spotlight. He looks back to the favourite text of his youthful literary apprenticeship, Kafka’s The Trial, and sees himself as preparing for the court of last judgment. He clings to his belief that his existence, like every existence, “has ruffled the surface of Being”.

Havel knew he had been had been the author of his country’s recent course in time. He knew the final scene was drawing near. He spoke with Archbishop Jaroslav Dominik Duka, his old cellmate in Bory prison, now the primate of the Czech Catholic Church. He received a visit from the Dalai Lama.

On December 18, 2011, at his country house in north Bohemia, the end came. The Borromean nuns who had been recruited to care for him could sense his breathing becoming shallow; eventually it stopped altogether. No dramas any more: “It was like a candle going out, so quiet.”

Nicolas Rothwell is a senior writer on The Australian.