Sunday, 18 January 2015

Playwright, Prisoner and President: the Life of Vaclav Havel

A review of Michael Zantovsky, Havel: a Life, London: Atlantic Books (2014)

By Tim Haughton

You only really appreciate someone when they have left. The death of Vaclav Havel in December 2011 provoked a week of mourning, warm and generous words from his political foes, and for many ‘perhaps a rediscovery’ of the man who had played so many different roles in his life: playwright, political prisoner and president (p. 14). Michael Zantovsky’s outstanding new biography published a quarter of a century after the Velvet Revolution swept away the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, provides a colourful, well-written and perceptive account of the life, work and impact of Vaclav Havel.

Born into a wealthy family in Prague, Havel’s life was significantly shaped by the three key dates in the history of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia: 1948, 1968 and 1989. After the Communist takeover in the late 1940s, like others deemed to have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was branded a bourgeois element, ‘unworthy even of a high school diploma’ (p. 33) and forced into manual labour, only able to continue his education through evening classes where he developed his poetic interests. But it was during his compulsory military service where his passion for the theatre was nurtured in efforts to avoid the ‘drudgery and the mindlessness of drills’ (p. 46).  With a kindred spirit he started a regimental amateur troupe and put on a play designed ostensibly to elevate the ideological consciousness of the conscripts; but what they offered was something more subtly subversive, a tactic he carried into his own writings.

Havel’s early plays - such as The Garden Party and The Memorandum - depicted the travails of individuals confronted by the meaningless and contradictory phrases at the heart of depersonalized and dehumanized systems. His criticism was not focused directly at the communist system, but the critique resonated with contemporary Czech theatre-goers and attracted the attention of the authorities.

By Jiří Jiroutek  derivative work: ThecentreCZ [CC BY 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
By 1968 Havel’s fame had spread beyond the borders of Czechoslovakia. As the consequences of the Prague Spring were beginning to provoke concern in Moscow, Havel took advantages of the freedoms of 1968 and embarked on a trip to the United States, where he saw a production of The Memorandum in New York and met exiled writers and his old school-friend, the film director Milos Forman. As Zantovsky argues, Havel ‘identified neither with the reform process of the Prague Spring back home, nor with the radical rejection of social norms he witnessed in the West. He sympathized with the efforts to give socialism a human face, and to transcend the consumerist society through heightened awareness of human emotionality, but they were not his battles’ (p. 111). Identity, truth and responsibility were his principal themes, and they were to come to define his battles with the communist regime after the tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

The crushing of the Prague Spring ushered in an era known euphemistically as normalization. Czechoslovakia was a grim and repressive place in the 1970s and 1980s. The sparks of 1968 were largely extinguished, and many Czechs and Slovaks - in Havel’s words - ‘retreated into the individual’ with a sense of resigned fatalism. For a man animated by the themes of identity, truth and responsibility, it was perhaps no surprise that Vaclav Havel would not follow in these footsteps. Buttressed in part by the income from productions of his plays abroad and his reputation in the West, Havel became the country’s leading dissident through his plays, essays and involvement in dissident circles, most notably Charter 77 and the Committee for the Unjustly Prosecuted. Along with the sections charting Havel’s life in the early 1990s, these chapters of Zantovsky’s book are amongst the best. He recounts Havel’s time working in the Trutnov brewery in the early 1970s, which became the inspiration for perhaps his best play, Audience. The playwright who had taken the menial job - partly for financial reasons, partly to rekindle his creative juices and partly out of a sense of guilt - incongruously used to drive his big black Mercedes (bought with his foreign earnings) to the brewery every morning, probably guzzling away about a third of his salary.    

For his involvement in the Committee for the Unjustly Prosecuted, Havel was incarcerated in 1979 for four and a half years. This long stretch in prison had a profound and lasting effect on the dissident’s health, diet and resolve; it also probably saved his marriage. Havel had first met his wife, Olga, when he was still in his teens, in one of the famous intellectual cafes appropriately named Slavia, although it took a few years before they became an item. Zantovsky’s biography is a warm and generous appreciation of the man, but it does not shy away from detailing Havel’s extra-marital affairs and the resemblance of the dissident community in the 1970s to a ‘libertine wife-swapping community’ (p. 211). Havel was arrested in 1979 at the flat of one of his mistresses, and indeed he rushed back into the arms of another mistress on his release in 1983. Nonetheless, jail offered no close contact with the opposite sex, and his main means of communication with the outside world were his letters to Olga. These letters, which were subsequently published, demonstrate Havel’s philosophical ruminations, but also his craving for love and affection.

‘All lives’, argues Zantovsky, ‘make more sense in retrospect than in forward projection’ (p. 64). Indeed, although the experience of jail in the early 1980s clearly cemented his position as the leader of the dissident community, in 1983 there appeared little chance the dour and repressive communist regime of Gustav Husak was going to end any time soon. Havel looked set to spend the remainder of his days as a prominent, but ultimately unsuccessful dissenter, rather than becoming the country’s head of state by the end of the decade.

Following events in Poland, Hungary and East Germany, a student demonstration met with violence by the authorities on 17 November 1989 became the spark for ten tumultuous days. Many accounts of those events tend to slip into easy metaphors about a playwright directing the revolution from the Magic Lantern theatre in Prague. Zantovsky wisely avoids such imagery, preferring instead to point out that ‘Havel behaved like a true revolutionary leader, doing what he thought was necessary rather than what was simply right’ (p. 316). Indeed, what had distinguished Havel from his fellow dissidents was ‘his sense of the possible, and the practical steps needed for attaining the possible’ (p. 316). Moreover, as philosopher Ladislav Hejdanek remarked, Havel was ‘carbon’: a chemical element capable of linking with many others to create a compound of irresistible strength (p. 299).

Zantovsky is well-placed to provide a detailed account of his subject’s role as Czechoslovak president from 1989-1992. The biographer worked for Havel during this period as a spokesman and press secretary. Although he may have overemphasized his proximity to the president, claiming he ‘probably spent more time with Vaclav Havel than any other person, including his wife’ (p. 5), the opportunity to observe the new head of state at close quarters has allowed him to colour his account with anecdotes. Zantovsky recalls, for instance, Havel’s speech to the joint session of Congress in February 1990. The press spokesman had developed a painful blockage in his ear, which proved difficult when having to translate Havel’s speech from Czech into English. ‘I could hardly hear a word Havel was saying’, recounts Zantovsky, who was forced to resort to lip reading. ‘Whenever Havel remembered addressing the joint sessions of Congress’, he noted, ‘I had my revenge by teasing him that in fact he had been addressing me, and I was deaf to his words’ (p. 357). Moreover, during a trip to Bratislava, keen to break out of the ‘oppressive ghetto of the Borik hotel’, aides booked Havel and his team into another hotel in the forested hills above the Slovak capital. When the order of drinks arrived in the bar they were accompanied by a number of ‘rather attractive and friendly young ladies in various stages of partial attire’: the presidential party had been booked into a brothel! (p. 407).

By MD (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Havel’s entourage was in the Slovak capital as part of one of the president’s visits designed to help forge an agreement between Czechs and Slovaks and keep the federation together. Although Havel’s position was weak, he could and perhaps should have done more to try to save Czechoslovakia than Zantovsky is willing to admit, particularly by galvanizing the pro-federal forces before the 1992 elections. Admittedly, however, once Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar had won the polls in their respective parts of the federation in June 1992, the days of Czechoslovakia were numbered.

Havel’s weakness as the new president of the Czech Republic shines through in latter pages of Zantovsky’s book, which feel a little truncated and rushed. Havel vented his fury at the corruption in public life in a famous speech in 1997, berating those who used their political positions and connections for their own personal benefit. Although many Czechs agreed with the sentiments, Havel was increasingly seen by significant sections of the population as a sanctimonious moralist. Events in his own private life all seemed to highlight the contradictions and imperfections of the man: for example, the restitution of property confiscated from his family by the communists, and his decision to wed a much younger, new wife less than a year after Olga - who had stood by him through thick and thin – had died.

Knowing that Zantovsky was a close friend of Havel might make the prospective reader fear the biography will be a work of hagiography. It is a sympathetic portrait of the man, but whilst not quite being warts and all, Havel: a Life offers a rounded picture of the writer, dissident and politician, one that compares well with the other biographies on the market such as those written by John Keane and Eda Kriesova.  At times unfeeling and self-centred, sometimes overly sensitive to criticism and editing (as so many writers are), Havel was nonetheless a towering figure in modern Czech and Czechoslovak history. His plays explored with erudition and insight the complexities and absurdities of regimes, often through the confusions and complexities of language. His essays highlighted the contradictions of communist regimes, and how they were protected by the passivity of populations which had to be made aware of the potential power of the powerless. His anti-communist activities helped organize, orchestrate and galvanize the Velvet Revolution. His time as president ensured the Czech Republic re-joined the Western world and its institutions, and helped push Czechs towards the values and practices of democracy, albeit not as far as he had wished. During the last few weeks of his life he displayed to friends a sense of resignation (p. 515) and a dismay at the carping from his critics. His death in December 2011, however, moved even his sharpest detractors to put away their barbs and brickbats, and focus on the positive contribution of the playwright, prisoner and president.

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