By Kevin O’Sullivan
Before a rash of publications appears in the coming months to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the revolutions of 1989, there is one book that you shouldn’t let pass you by: Václav Havel’s excellent personal history, To the Castle and Back. Havel, as you might expect from a playwright turned activist turned political prisoner turned president of democratic Czechoslovakia and its successor the Czech Republic, has written no ordinary memoir. The book’s raw materials – his vast personal experience and undiminished abilities as a writer – provide rich pickings for an extraordinary life story, but it is the structure he imposes that makes this an autobiography unlike any other. Here Havel the artist runs free, his life from 1989 to his retirement from politics in 2003 presented in three subtly intertwined narratives: notes from the author during the period spent writing ‘this strange little book of mine’; extracts from his instructions to the presidential secretariat; and a revealing (and lengthy) interview with Czech journalist Karel Hvížd’ala.
The interplay between them, not least the book’s out-of-sync chronology, has no right to work smoothly, but it does. One short memo, written to his staff on 21 August 1999 and repeated in three or four different chapters, captures its eccentric brilliance: ‘In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it? The lightbulb has been unscrewed so as not to wake it up and upset it.’