To the Castle and Back

Havel, already well-known as a playwright, essayist and political dissident,
became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 after the “Velvet Revolution” which
brought about the downfall of the Communist system. He was to remain at the
helm until 2003, an extraordinary achievement for someone who, though
politically engaged, was a writer and intellectual rather than a politician. In
November 1989, with only a few hours to decide whether or not to be directly
involved in the country’s historic events, he realised that he could not avoid
the challenge to synthesize thought with action. Thus, “I became a direct
participant in great changes in our world... I consider that a tremendous gift
of destiny.”

This book,
which he calls a “special kind of collage”, is his reflections on those 14
years at Prague Castle, seat of the presidency. Its structure is tripartite;
long written replies to (written) questions in 2005 by Czech journalist, Karel
Hvizd’ala; a running italicised commentary that provides the background to the
questions; and selected memoranda from 1993-2003. There are advantages and
disadvantages to this method. The disadvantage is that it makes the narrative
very disjointed; the reader is continually moving backwards and forwards in
time, struggling to sift through seemingly random material. The advantage is a
freshness and originality of approach that brings together both the day-to-day
problems of running a country from scratch (the memoranda) and the author’s
deeper responses to the tasks that faced him during those years. It also
provides a more honest appraisal of his presidency than would probably be the
case in a straightforward account that would be tempted to construct a dossier of

A writer
has to be honest or his vocation will wither; witness the incisive analysis of
the predicament of Polish intellectuals under Communism by the Polish poet,
Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind. Havel,
imprisoned for five years under Communism rather than surrender his voice, has somehow
managed to keep his integrity intact while engaged in the compromising world of Realpolitik. His writer’s persona,
with its quizzical, sceptical stance, was never submerged by the frustrations and
annoyances of office. This makes his book a rare record and gives it its moral

As he
points out, Czechoslovakia was the first country in the Soviet bloc where “a
genuine and lifelong non-Communist” became head of state. Forty years of Communism
caused many problems for its democratic vanquishers. There were no professional
politicians among the dissidents who took power; “Where would a democratic
political class have come from in a totalitarian system?” Havel asks,
commenting wryly, “You can’t produce a thousand brand-new judges overnight.”
Criticised for employing former Communists, he explains that it was not
possible to dismantle the civic institutions and the civil service, or the
country would have fallen apart; there had to be a tacit amnesty for all but
the most notorious practitioners in the old regime. (Reading this made me think
of the US failure in Iraq after the invasion in 2003 to understand this
lesson.) His approach was a mixture of prudence and magnanimity; above all, “I
wasn’t the President in order to be popular.”

As a young
graduate in 1968 I vividly recall the so-called “Prague Spring” and the forlorn
attempt of Alexander Dubcek, then the Communist leader of the country, to bring
about tentative reform. Havel writes of those times as a longing “for a free
and colourful and poetic world without violence” and its cruelly disillusioned
aftermath: a “massive epidemic of looking out for Number One and indifference
to others.” Dubcek was also a candidate for the presidency in 1989. Havel’s
assessment of him was that although a decent and modest man he was irresolute –
“confronted with a fateful dilemma, he might fail to deliver” – and “hopelessly
mired in Communist ideology and phraseology.” That Havel himself stood quite
outside the corrupting effects of ideology gave him an irresistible appeal.

The author
is also interesting in his thoughts about the “Velvet Divorce”, when the former
Czechoslovakia split into two separate countries in 1993. Believing strongly
that democracy was not a new kind of dictatorship, he felt the Slovaks had a
right to independent statehood. Yet he also concludes that since the separation
“our country has become smaller and poorer” (Scottish Nationalists, take note.)
He often compares the Czech Republic to the US, to the former’s disadvantage:
paying an extended visit to America in 2005 he notes that Americans are
hardworking, yet also cheerful and considerate, and the police are seen as
defenders of citizens, not their enemy; “Here, people enjoy politics; in our
country they don’t”. He is astonished by the vibrancy of political debate in
the US – while at home “by the evening people are tired, trying to catch up on
work, drunk or glad to be watching TV.” The long, negative effects of Communism
are still at work: its “hypocrisy, selfishness, indifference to others,
xenophobia and miserable moral atmosphere poisoned us more than we realised.”
Yet he is hopeful about the future as a new generation of free people grows up.

Havel also knows
that one must “resist remaining in power at all costs”. He sees politics as
providing “a genuine service to citizens... a service that follows the moral
order that stands above us, that takes account the long-term interests of the
human race.” He was hugely relieved to be out of office in 2003, commenting “I
wouldn’t have to wear a tie all the timer, smile all the time, be worried all
the time”.

The book also
reveals the mutual animosity between himself and the new president, Vaclav
Klaus – “he had a capacity for radiating a negative energy” – who was prime
minister for some of the period of Havel’s presidency; there is a grimly comic
description of their tortured weekly meetings, instigated by Klaus after he had
read that Tony Blair saw the Queen for an hour each week.

Among the
personalities Havel met during those years, such as Gorbachev, “ a reasonable
man who understood the world was changing”, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, whom
he admires somewhat uncritically (part of his “American dream” perhaps?), there
is a moving account of his meeting with the late John Paul II after the Velvet
Revolution; he greeted the Pope with the words “I am not sure I know what a
miracle is... but I’m part of one at the moment” and later adds revealingly,
“Every conversation I had with the Pope was like a confession... afterwards I
felt I had been born anew.”

This being
Prague, with Havel living at the Castle and as a writer deeply aware of the
legacy of Prague’s most famous literary son, Franz Kafka, there are several sly
and amusing references to a Kafkaesque world: “It was explained to me that any
papers I have thrown away, full of state secrets, I must shred, but the Castle
cannot lend me the shredder”; there are also a few deliberate repetitions in
the memoranda concerning a bat that cannot be removed from the cupboard in
which it lives. Here the writer’s love of metaphor is sneaked in among the
tiresome negotiations and never-ending speeches.

Despite his
somewhat haphazard approach to autobiography, his book makes me warm to this
remarkable man. The impression that emerges is of an independent, humorous and
self-critical thinker, a reluctant politician who responded generously to the
burdens of office, a patriot who loves his country (although often exasperated
by her citizenry) and who guided it during an unprecedented time of national
turmoil, an odd celebrity who was not seduced by the glamour of power and frank
about his controversial second marriage and his susceptibility towards women.
Such an achievement is, as Ronald Reagan remarked of his own two terms of
office, “Not bad, not bad at all.”

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.


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