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Book Report: Havel, a life

Your Humble Blogger is, as Gentle Readers may guess, mostly interested in Vaclav Havel as a playwright and a theatrical figure. I love his stuff; I love the sort of thing he does. I’d love to play in a production of The Memorandum; I’m too old to play the lead in The Garden Party, but I could certainly play one or another of the bureaucrats (or several of them, I suppose). I’d like a chance at Largo Desolato, sure. His stuff is sort of absurdist moral comedy, as it might be Pythonesque and Beckettish, a bit Stoppardy à la N.F. Simpson in Caryl Churchill mode, in a sense, with a touch of Ionesco. But nothing like any of those. He’s really masterly at repetition, and really masterly at repetition as well. Extraordinary works. Extraordinary.

And of course an extraordinary life. Michael Zantovsky (the author of Havel: A Life) was Mr. Havel’s press secretary in his first term as President of Czechoslovakia, or possibly his first term as Czech President, or perhaps both. The details weren’t clear. For a politician and diplomat, though, he does an excellent job of situating the theater stuff, both interpreting the works themselves and situating them within Prague culture of the time. He’s better at describing the reactions to The Garden Party than the production, but that itself is fascinating. Really, though, Mr. Zantovsky (or Žantovský), is much better at the political maneuvering and chaos that immediately followed the Velvet Revolution. The stuff he was there for. The image of President Havel and President Walesa trying to find somewhere in the White House to have a cigarette was lovely.

My favorite bit could have come out of a Havel play: after Mr. Havel took office, he prioritized a sort of de-communization of the Castle, the immense thousand-year seat of government. I had no real idea about the Castle; you could fit ten White Houses in it with room to walk around between them. Good King Wenceslas ruled there; so did Hitler. Anyway, the thing about the Velvet Revolution is that the government never really stopped in between; the whole point of the velvet-ness was a combination of amnesty and continuity that meant (among other things) that people who had jobs in the Castle under the Communists in November 1989 would show up to work in December 1989 under democratic rule. And the Communist bureaucracy was of course famous for not letting the right hand know what the left was doing (while simultaneously encouraging either hand to inform on the other) so it took a while to, f’r’ex, figure out that the catering staff reported to the security staff.

Anyway, Now-President Havel prioritizes de-Communizing the Castle. He’s a believer, of course, in symbols and whatnot, and art and architecture and so forth, and he wants to make the Castle feel less communist. So evidently he would go on these excursions, room to room, trailing his inner circle of staff, trying to find out what was going on in this part of the Castle, and what was going on here, where people were being made to stand in line under huge statues, or whatever. He got into details of design, which drove everyone crazy. Anyway, in this insanely large complex, he’s trying to poke his nose everywhere, but not systematically, just charging around. And Mr. Zantovsky doesn’t say how long he’s been at it, alas, when he comes across a room full of women wearing headphones and typing. They were listening in on all the telephone conversations in the Castle. That had been their job under the Communists, and they were still showing up to work and doing it, even though nobody was coming and picking up the reports any more.

Such a great scene. And profoundly Havel-ian, too, although I suppose if he had written it, there would have had to be another scene later, where the President comes back in and the women are still there, still typing their reports for nobody to ever receive, only now of course in the newly liberated capital, with democracy and freedom, they have no headphones and no longer eavesdrop on people’s calls. They just skip that step, too, and keep filling out the reports just as they always did.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,