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Havel in his own words-- and his own style
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.