Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Václav Havel as diarist

Václav Havel, the Czech political dissident and human rights activist who became his country’s first president in the post-Communist era, would have been 80 today. He was also a playwright of some distinction, and, as a young man, used his plays to criticise the Soviet-backed regime. A few years before his death, he published a memoir which included a diary he kept during 2005; and more recently the Václav Havel Library in Prague has announced the discovery of a diary Havel kept while in prison during 1977.

Havel was born in Prague on 5 October 1936 into an intellectual and wealthy family, though that wealth was stripped away after WW2 by the Communist regime. Disallowed from studying humanities because of his bourgeois background, he worked as a lab technician before enrolling in the economics faculty as the Czech Technical University, though he dropped out after two years. Following military service in the late 1950s, he found work as a stagehand for the Prague theatrical company, and soon began writing plays, such as The Garden Party (Zahradní slavnost) and The Memo (Vyrozumění). At the same time, he became an active member of the writers’ union, though his political aims were not so much to remove the prevailing Communist regime but to change it. In 1964, he married Olga Šplíchalová.

By 1968, Havel had risen to the position of resident playwright at the Theatre on the Balustrade. He made a brief trip to US, for a production of The Memo in New York, which established his international reputation. Back home, he was a prominent supporter of the liberal reforms taking place that year (known as the Prague Spring). But with Operation Danube and the Soviet clampdown in August, Havel’s plays were banned and his passport confiscated. He moved to live in the countryside where he maintained his political activities, largely on behalf of human rights in the country, being a co-founder of Charter 77, and continued writing plays. In 1978, he wrote one of his most well-known essays - The Power of the Powerless - which foresaw that opposition could eventually prevail against the totalitarian state. It was secretly but widely circulated at the time in Czechoslovakia and other Warsaw Pact countries. He was repeatedly arrested in the 1970s and 1980s, serving four years in prison, but resisted pressure to emigrate.

In late 1989, Havel, by then leader of Civic Forum, emerged as one of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution. By unanimous vote of the Federal Assembly in December, he was elected President; and the following year, in the first free national elections for over 40 years, he won a sweeping victory for Civic Forum and its Slovak counterpart Public Against Violence. He stepped down in 1992 because of tensions between the Czechs and the Slovaks, not wishing to preside over the country’s break-up, but was reelected as president of the Czech Republic in early 1993. His wife died in 1996, and the same year he was diagnosed with cancer, and underwent lung-removal surgery. He was re-elected president in 1998, though by this time, with most power vested in the prime minister’s office not the presidency, and many domestic controversies, he was more popular abroad than at home. He stepped down in 2003, by which time he had married Dagmar Veškrnová, a flamboyant actress who had once been filmed in the role of a topless vampire.

Havel turned to writing, producing a new play in 2008, which was enthusiastically received, and writing a memoir of his time as president. Paul Wilson translated the latter, which was published in English, also in 2008, by Portobello Books under the title, To the Castle and Back. He died in 2011, having received, from the early 1990s onwards, many state honours and many international awards. Further information is available online at the official Havel website, Wikipedia, Václav Havel Library, or Radio Prague, and from many obituaries, for example the BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Telegraph.

Although Havel was not a committed diarist, or so it seems, he did keep a diary at different times in his life. Earlier this year, Radio Prague broadcast an interview with Michael Žantovský, the head of the Václav Havel Library, about some previously ‘unknown diaries’ kept by Havel when jailed in 1977. Žantovský explained that the library had decided to publish the diaries in their entirety as a facsimile (i.e. not retyped) because they ‘make a very interesting graphic’ alongside explanatory essays by experts. He also gave some information about the diaries:

‘The entries were written between January and July 1977 when the Charter 77 human rights initiative was launched and spearheaded by Václav Havel as spokesman and 14 days later he ended up in detention and then pre-trial custody where he spent the next four months. And he started making notes into a very ordinary scheduling diary which existed at the time and this disappeared after he was released in subsequent years and was only discovered in the garage of a close friend of his by the grandson of the friend, when his grandfather died and he was clearing up his papers.’

Otherwise, Havel also kept a diary during 2005 while working on his memoir, To the Castle and Back. The book is made up of three elements: substantial extracts from dated memos to his staff during his time in office as president, answers to a series of interview questions, and sometimes lengthy extracts from his 2005 diary - see below for two such extracts. (The book can also be previewed freely online at Amazon and Googlebooks.)

29 April 2005
‘I have been to two more “political dinners” at Madeleine’s; many important people were there, such as the former secretary of defense William Cohen; the director of PBS, Mrs. Pat Mitchell; Senator Barbara Mikulski; the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, Mrs. Nancy Pelosi; the deputy secretary of state, Mr. Nicholas Bums; and many others. Many of them I had met on earlier occasions, others I had once been introduced to, but I had forgotten those earlier encounters. Madeleine, once again, moderated the discussion wonderfully; it was lively and spontaneous and exhausting, naturally. I had the constant feeling that I was speaking of things about which these people knew more than I did, and moreover I was doing so in a language I don’t know very well. Now that it’s over I’m glad I did it, and I’m grateful to Madeleine.

It’s paradoxical: every evening I meet with the most important people here, and then, during the day, I run afoul of banal American red tape. Yesterday, for example, we had to return our rental car and then turn right around and rent it again, even though we’d already paid for another month. I understand the thing itself - it’s an accounting matter. What I don’t understand is why the transaction consumed almost an entire, valuable American day. Standing at the window where all this took place, and where more and more complications kept surfacing, I found it hard not to lose my temper. My Czech pistoleer often uses a trick I don’t much like: he reveals who I am - if I’m not recognized, that is. But in this democratic country, favoritism is out of favor, and so the results are always the same: great delight that they’ve met me, great astonishment that I, of all people, have turned up here, of all places - and then an immediate return to the original situation. It doesn’t speed things up by even a minute. That was yesterday. I barely had time to change for dinner at Madeleine’s.

But that wasn’t the end of it; two unpleasant things happened this morning. The first was something I knew was bound to happen, that is, our Barnabas, Mr. Edler, was nowhere to be found, and so they wouldn’t let us into our parking spot. (Later the director of the Kluge Center had to sort things out himself at the entrance.) And the second thing was something I could not have known would happen, and which says something about the state of my memory. At the entrance to the library, where they put my bag through a scanner, they discovered a metal kitchen knife in it, which is not allowed. I expressed surprise and denied it, of course, because I’d completely forgotten that I’d put the knife in my bag that morning so I could spread jam on my roll. They searched the bag and I was caught red-handed. There was nothing to do but hope I wouldn’t be arrested, then go outside and toss the knife in the garbage. (Fortunately it was not made of silver.) I felt very silly.

I often can’t understand Americans when they speak, especially black Americans, and this is the source of many other embarrassing moments. Yesterday, for example, a young black man who was with me in the elevator told me how much he admired me and asked me for my autograph. Then he mumbled something I didn’t catch, though it was evidently a question. For the sake of simplicity, I replied, “Yes.” As soon as I’d spoken, I realized that he was asking me if I had written The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I couldn’t very well change my answer, and there was no escaping, so I had to remain in a state of embarrassment until the moment of liberation when our elevator arrived at the right floor. A truly Kunderian situation.’

28 November 2005
‘For the whole of September and October I never stopped. Yet what did I actually do? I visited several European countries, had a lot of meetings and visits and discussions, and made countless speeches - and all at a time of year when I’m usually under the weather. I’m quite surprised that I survived it all without any damage to my health. I’m at Hradecek once more, but there’s a lot of snow here now and the trees are beautifully cloaked in white. I’m really like a hermit here. (Hradecek is off by itself and my only neighbor is my friend Andrej Krob, who has a cottage nearby, but he’s not there now.) Yesterday I watched a thriller on television and then I realized that for the first time in my life I felt afraid here. The very thought that I might suddenly glimpse the movement of a human shadow gave me goose bumps and heart palpitations. I stopped getting the newspapers a while ago, and my news comes from television. I read the papers only when I happen across one. The last time that happened was several days ago on the plane from Budapest, when I discovered I was the subject of a scandal. The Czech media are up in arms because I have apparently supported our new prime minister. The whole thing obviously started a while ago, when he invited me for coffee, and as we were leaving we were waylaid by a journalist who asked me how I’d have gotten along with the current prime minister if I were still president. I said I thought we’d hit it off. By that I meant that I would not have been having constant public squabbles with the prime minister over how to interpret the constitution, as our current president does. I should have expressed myself more precisely or concretely, but still, why there should have been a controversy or even a scandal over this, I have no idea. But obviously I can’t understand everything.’

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