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on June 5, 2007
Maybe we can be forgiven for wishing that Vaclav Havel, one of the truly amazing figures of our time, had written a more traditional, linear, and straightforward memoir of the Velvet Revolution that brought him to power, and his experiences as president, first of Czechoslovakia, then the Czech Republic. Those were years that pulsed with excitement; and if our hopes that this philosopher-president could remake the world (or his own country, even) in his own image were wildly over-optimistic, then at least his example continues to shine as evidence that history is always unpredictable, and amazing things are truly possible.

But instead of a chronological incident-by-incident description of what happened in those years from 1989 onward, Havel has given us this unorothodox book which is divided in three parts: his answers to an interviewer's question (the same interviewer with whom he collaborated on the fascinating "Distrubing the Peace" just before the revolution); excerpts from his official directions to his staff while president; and more recent reflections of his life in the post-presidency (largely written while on sabbatical in the United States).

There is plenty here to keep interested people enthralled: insights into contemporary world leaders; descriptions of those heady days which saw one-time "dissidents" elevated to power; explanations of why Havel acted as he did in various issues facing the Czech Republic (much of this material might be pretty much incomprehensible to many non-European readers). We also get stunningly honest glimpses into Havel's personality-- sometimes witty, often persnickety, always overly conflicted. These are, perhaps, the most fascinating aspects of the book (though, from a scholarly viewpoint, perhaps the least important). We learn that Havel loves Americans (so polite [!], he says; such good drivers [!!]; with such beautiful teeth-- though they eat these gigantic sandwiches and wash them down the Coca-cola. Interesting? Maybe. Important? Hardly.

Perhaps, from the viewpoint of the student of history and politics, it would have been more useful for Havel to concetrate for a longer time on, say, his relations with Klaus; the problems of privatization; the Czech Republic's relationship to NATO or the EU. But one senses that, had he done so, we would have a much less humane (and human) book here-- and letting personality and humanity shine through beyond the expected constructs of society is what much of Havel's lifework has been about. Certainly, this book irritates at times. Sometimes, one senses that by jumping about from subject to subject, from 2005 to 1994 to 1999 to 2004 again, much is left unsaid and much escapes sufficient analysis. Certainly, there is some kind of absurdist pattern to Havel's repeating certain brief extracts from his journal (about how he wants his pike prepared; the bat in the closet; needing a linger hose for his garden) over and over again. But what that pattern is precisely escapes most of those approching this book hoping for insights into Havel's perspective on our world and its recent history.

"To The Castle and Back" is well worth reading for its insights into this marvelous man and his story. It was good of him to share as much of himself with us as he has. But certainly, we shouldn't be surprised that as one of the great iconoclasts of our age, he chose to do so in a manner that was completely and unmistakably his own.
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on June 24, 2007
To those of us deeply involved in Czech history or culture, this is an essential book. It's a fascinating insider's look at the choices a dissident was forced to make when he became President of a postcommunist country. But for people not deeply familiar with Havel's work, this is not the place to start. First read "Open Letters" and "Disturbing the Peace," then John Keane's (similarly unconventional) biography.
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on August 6, 2007
I just finished Vaclav Havel's memoir, To the Castle and Back, and the harsh feelings I had towards the book as I began it dissipated a bit by the end. It has an odd structure, equal parts an interview done concerning events before he was president, memos he wrote while he was president, and recollections he wrote some years after he left office, all interspersed randomly among each other, with occasional repetitions of texts. As a biography, it's a failure. By the end of the book, I still know little of the history of the Czech Republic, or what Havel did while in office. Readers looking for that should go to Havel's book, Disturbing the Peace. That book remains one of the most influential books I've ever read, and I still count myself as lucky for stumbling on it in a friend's bookshelf.

As a piece of literature, though, To the Castle is a success. Fundamentally, it casts Havel (and all writers and activists) as a sort of postmodern Sisyphus. He writes in depth and at length about his difficulty getting motivated and starting to write. He write, to the point of being whiney, about his intense doubt that his writing and political projects will ever achieve their high objectives. Indeed, he seems to argue that writing is fundamentally futile: "man will carry the complete truth about himself to the grave." And yet Havel write, driven on by the "somewhat ridiculous" idea that "the world desperately needs the work in question, and will fall apart if it doesn't appear." I too like writing and thinking yet have intense self-doubt, and so I get great joy seeing that someone way more gifted than I like Havel suffers the same. I agree with Havel's quote: "I sometimes ask myself whether I did not originally begin to write... only to overcome my essential experience of inappropriateness... in order to be able to live with those feelings."

Yet somehow the Sisyphean task of the writer gives him meaning: "He simply tried to capture the world and himself more and more exactly through words, images, or actors, and the more he succeeds, the more aware he is that he can never completely capture either the world or himself... but that drives him to keep trying." Imagine Sisyphus as conscious of the absurdity of his task, yet still drawing meaning from it. Camus would be proud.

This book is also a lament, for it is perhaps his last, and is certainly written as such. Havel is sending a message: he did his best to write himself into the world, but ultimately failed to communicate his internal self. Like a mortal Sisyphus in old age realizing he will never reach the top of this hill, nor could have.
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on November 27, 2007
I enjoyed this book, but I don't believe it is for everyone. Two themes give this work its form: a Heideggerian commitment to the notion that his Being over the past 15 years is best disclosed by sharing the "average everydayness" of his former presidential responsibilities; and a profound physical and spiritual exhaustion with his role as fairytale hero. For hardcore fans of Havel, and for scholars engaged in close examinations of the post-communist era in Central and Eastern Europe, there be gems here. But you have to rummage for them. For the reader looking for a memoir possessed of the usual pleasures of clear chronology and steady narrative, To the Castle and Back will be extraordinarily frustrating. One other word of caution: I found the few passages devoted to Havel's first wife, Olga, pretty hard to take. My lasting impression of Havel's account, though, is of a man who worked prodigiously for the good of his country: One reads over and over again how he readily spent his meager political capital to remind citizens there and everywhere of the big picture issues. Perhaps nobody has ever played the role of public intellectual quite so well.
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on January 4, 2012
There are several fascinating aspects to this book:
1. It contains insights into the difficulty of complaining about "the man" then being "the man." As a dissident he complained bitterly about how things were being run then someone said "OK, lets see if you can do better!"
2. It contains insight into the "eastern" mind. This book was like sitting around with my Russian friends over several bottles of vodka and having a giant circular stream of consciousness discussion of everything from politics to romance. Everything is in no particular order yet constantly connected to everything.
3. The idea that a good life is a large portion of martyrdom flows through this book. Again this is perhaps something of an eastern mindset. He draws deep meaning from his realization that his job is impossible and his work will fall apart yet it is his duty and his glory to continue.
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on September 23, 2009
I will never forget how, during his first mandate as President of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel mentioned to a journalist that he had learned something utterly, unimaginably absurd about international politics; that even he, as someone hardened by the absurdities of communism, was astonished by it; but that, because of his role, he was not allowed to repeat what he had learned. Like children fooled by the enticement of the unknown, we were all left to hope that the secret would eventually be revealed. Of the many absurdities that Havel documents in this autobiography, one never learns exactly which one had so shaken him, but enough is written to satisfy one's curiosity. Granted his life-long experience with and analysis of the absurd as an outsider and playwright, it was natural for Havel as President to perceive the absurd in the grotesque compromises, ultra petty influences and scarily neurotic personalities of high politics.

It's a toss-up which of the two volumes of his autobiography to recommend to those who only have the time for one of them. The first volume, "Disturbing the Peace", covers his life up to becoming a political leader (ca. 1988) and the second, "To the Castle and Back", cover his presidential life from ca. 1989 to 2005. I recommend both, but you should at least read the first volume for the edification of seeing an utterly worthy person on his improbable way to becoming the leader of a country. The second volume is fun, interesting and more recent, but it "only" documents the happily ever after part of the fairy tale narrative of the little guy who beat the communists and then had to run the country himself. Havel says he disliked that narrative, but it did generate huge interest in his person.

Here are some remarkable points about Havel. In an early meeting with the departing communist government, his aide's hidden recorder made a racket when it ran out of tape. He contacted fellow national leaders spontaneously to toss around ideas. He counted Richard von Weizsäcker as his closest personal friend but apparently Madeleine Albright did not rate among his friends in the end (page 321). He understood the profound importance of the European Union for ensuring peace, an understanding that is missing in many anti-EU politicians today. He warned George W. Bush twice that his approach to the Iraq war was dangerous and would create more terrorists (page 168). To put it nicely, he was no purist about democracy and believed that referenda should only be used in extremis (page 195). He caught an internal information leaker by telling only that person a story and seeing if it got leaked. He strongly warned that the profit-motive, globalism and consumerism lead to cultural and environmental devastation (page 161) - a point that many global CEOs agreed upon with him. He had genuinely decent experiences with Gorbachev and Yeltsin (good luck doing that with Putin). And sadly, he stopped making jokes in public because they always came back to haunt him.

There is no question that Havel, who was formerly a kind of "conscience-of-the-nation" character, retained his integrity and intellect in a way that towered over that of the average national leader. But his exceptionally high standard tempts one to point out his lapses. The fact that Havel wrote his presidential memoirs as a guest at the US Library of Congress surely had an influence on his writing. It was a little gift, but should he have accepted it? While writing, Havel found it noteworthy to mention using a friend's private jet from Europe to the US just so that he could have his dogs with him. Should he have caused such financial and environmental expense just for some pooch-cuddling? But again, compared to typical leaders, this is just nit-picking.
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on April 29, 2015
Since I cam from Czechslovakia, the part that is now the Czech Republic I was very interested what Havel had to say. I have admired him for a long time, and since he was a writer to begin with the book is well written with occasional glimpses of humor.
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on December 12, 2007
Vaclav Havel communicates with the open-hearted clarity of a good friend who happens to be a world-class writer. I find myself using his perspectives as I go about my life, far as it is from the great transitions of the Czech and Slovak nations from totalitarianism to democracy. Paul Wilson's translation is superb. Vaclav Havel deserves his reputation as a very human hero.
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on February 28, 2008
What Havel lacks in chronological narrative structure, he makes up for in depth and candor. In the intro to the book, he acknowledges that this is not a traditional memoir and he encourages the reader to move on to the next section should he or she become bogged down in and bored by the intricacies of Czech politics. To quote Havel in his introduction, he writes, "[W]hether you read it whole or piecemeal, I will be satisfied if you feel this book has given you something of value."

As a professional writer, Havel demonstrates the ability to express his wit and his gravitas with equal quality. This comes through even in translation. Havel breaks up his story into sections: memos between him and his closest staff while he was president of Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic), reflections from his then-current perspective and finally, answers to questions from a Czech journalist. The three parts are intercalated with each other throughout the text and give a very unique and enriching story of one of the 20th century's most fascinating world leaders.
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on January 12, 2015
I love his candor! Would that a U.S. President would risk writing his (or her?) memoir with such finesse and honesty. Via his description of people, events, his perception of his achievements, his errors/failures, and was deeply impressed by him and grew very fond of him; that said, I never had personal contact with him, but if that had occurred, it may have confirmed my feelings or disappointed me.
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