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To the Castle and Back Hardcover – May 15, 2007
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As president of Czechoslovakia and of the nascent Czech Republic, playwright-turned-statesman Havel led central Europe out of communism and into the twenty-first century before stepping down in 2003. With this book, Havel reflects upon his 14 years at Prague Castle but resists the constraints of a traditional memoir, instead combining retrospective commentary with excerpts from memos written to his staff while in office. Although fragmentary and offered with minimal context, these excerpts provide a diarylike glimpse into a leader simultaneously confronting challenges both major (Havel's struggle against so-called Mafia capitalism) and mundane (Havel's struggle to master his own computer system). Besides providing insightful, gently ironic commentary on the rigors of democratic leadership, Havel's unconventional narrative form also highlights his personality--his struggles with writing, his fondness for smokers, and his admiration for Madeleine Albright--somewhat above his significant personal achievements. He also weighs in on current events, including the Iraq War and the obstacles to complete European unification. The net result is a fresh and intimate self-portrait. Brendan Driscoll
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"An artful, sly and touching self-portrait . . . illuminate[s] the implausible incongruities that make up Havel's strange and appealing personality."
--The New York Times Book Review
"A political memoir like no other . . . A compelling record of what candour and moral authority can . . . achieve in politics."
"Even among the handful of politicians who can rival Havel's personal qualities, who can write like him? His calm good humor never breaks, even as his eyes remain fixed on the cliff the Western world is barreling toward."--Bloomberg News
"A fresh and intimate self-portrait . . . A diarylike glimpse into a leader simultaneously confronting challenges both major . . . and mundane."
"An illuminating memoir by an admirable writer and leader."
Top customer reviews
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.
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.