Monday, August 26, 2019

Book Review: Václav Havel, To the Castle and Back

(2007; translated into English by Paul Wilson in 2008.)

When Václav Havel first entered Prague Castle after becoming president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he and his team (“a group of friends from various branches of the arts”) found wires and concealed microphones everywhere, and a map revealing secret rooms. It was “an enchanted Kafkaesque castle” and, as he reveals in this candid memoir, his time there frequently struck him as absurd. What he most remembers from those heady, almost hysterical early days is that “we laughed a lot, though I can hardly remember what we laughed at or why.” The laughter soon died away, and this memoire is mostly about his growing disillusionment.
When Havel went from being a dissident to a president, “the arc of my story was completed in a way that was almost like a fairytale.” This played especially well in the west, where he assumed an almost legendary status. Back home, however, Havel had a country to run and he fell back to earth with a bump. In this book he attempts to answer his critics and to address his “murky legacy”. It's an astonishingly candid memoir from the acclaimed, dissident playwright, who was elected President after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.  
As writer and statesman, Václav Havel played an essential part in the profound changes that occurred in Central Europe in the last decades of the twentieth century. In this memoir, he writes about his transition from outspoken dissident and political prisoner to a player on the international stage in 1989 as newly-elected president of Czechoslovakia after the ousting of the Soviet Union. Four years later, in l993, he became president of the newly formed Czech Republic.
Havel gives full rein to his impassioned stance against the devastation wrought by communism, but the scope of his concern in this engrossing memoir extends far beyond the circumstances he faced in his own country. The book is full of anecdotes of his interactions with world figures: offering a peace pipe to Mikhail Gorbachev, meditating with the Dali Lama, confessing to Pope John Paul II and partying with Bill and Hilary Clinton.
He shares his thoughts on the future of the European Union and the role of national identity in today’s world. He explains why he has come to change his mind about the war in Iraq, and he discusses the political and personal reverberations he faces because of his initial support of the invasion. He writes with equal intelligence and candour about subjects as diverse as the arrogance of western power politics, the death of his first wife and his own battle with lung cancer.
Woven through are internal memos he wrote during his presidency that take us behind the scenes of the Prague Castle – the government’s seat of power – showing the internal workings of the office and revealing Havel’s mission to act as his country’s conscience, and even, at times, its chief social organizer.
Written with characteristic eloquence, wit and well-honed irony combined with an unfailing sense of wonder at the course his life has taken, To the Castle and Back is a revelation of one of the most important political figures of our time. Why didn’t he root out communists from the government and make a clean break with the old regime? Why did it take a month to disband the secret police, giving them time to destroy files? Why did he release all prisoners, resulting in a rise in crime? Why did he let the nationalists triumph in Slovakia, leading to the break-up of Czechoslovakia? The criticisms piled up, and at one point he even had business cards printed that read “Václav Havel, Author of Many Mistakes and Errors”.
As a playwright, he understood the theatrical nature of politics. All politicians must have “an elementary dramatic instinct”, he writes. But a major theme in this book is how often this desire for structure and order is thwarted by events. Whereas drama gives meaning and structure to existence, “Politics is more of a strange, never-ending process with no clear turning points and no unambiguous and immediately recognizable outcomes.”
To the Castle and Back moves backward and forward in time. It mixes diary entries with Havel’s answers to an interview and some “ancient memos” he wrote to his staff from 1993 to 2003. One repeated complaint was that there was a bat in the closet where the vacuum cleaner was kept, a bat was living. How could he get rid of it?

“…[When] I do something I try to do it properly, so that when I accepted the candidacy, I also accepted the various obligations that flowed from it. It would have been absurd, at that point, to have kept reconsidering, hesitating, expressing embarrassment, or being coy. Perhaps that’s where the impression that I was fighting for the office comes from. It’s nonsense. I wasn’t fighting for anything.

“But I was, I hope, the last of my kind. Politicians who hold office out of necessity and by default, as it were, if not merely out of politeness or because they can’t bring themselves to disappoint people by turning them down, ought not to be part of normal politics.” [p. 85.]

After becoming president, Havel churned out a speech a week for almost 15 years. “Perhaps it’s because of all this hard labour that I now find writing so difficult,” he said. “I’m not the same person I was when I wrote my plays….How wonderful it is, by comparison, to be a writer.” By contrast, if you write something creative in a couple of weeks, “it’s here for the ages.”
In summary, I greatly enjoyed this book. Not only did it tell his personal story. It was a fascinating commentary on the decline of the Soviet Union and its allies. Also, I note that it has now been 20 years or so since the Soviet Union collapsed. In the post-war period, to a large degree it was conflict between the West and the Soviets and their allies that kept the West together. I wonder to what degree the collapse of that post-war alliance is behind disarray across the globe, seems to be growing day by day.

No comments: