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.’
In three sentences Havel’s story is laid bare: a mix of the personal, the banal, the farcical and the humorous with an underlying allegorical twist.
We are offered a glimpse of Havel the man (flaws and all) through his battle with cancer, his personal relationships, those with his staff, and his attitude to the life of a politician (including often-repeated complaints about ‘unwritable’ speeches). Through his eyes we view the evolution of post-1968 Czech society, the rise of the dissidents, the fall of the communists and the birth and consolidation of democratic Czechoslovakia and its successor the Czech Republic. The narratives play on one another, overlapping and sprinting away but always demanding the reader’s attention, making a mockery of Havel’s characteristic exhortation to ‘skip ahead’ if ‘you occasionally feel like putting the book aside because it seems to skirt some of the world-shaking events that I lived through’.
There is just too much here to miss. Quite apart from those interesting times, Havel’s ideas about the role of capitalism and social responsibility, about culture, the arts and public well-being, about politics, economics and society in the Czech Republic and the wider post-communist world, his attempts to restore Prague Castle with a modern aesthetic, and his comments on the former communist bloc and the future of NATO, are integral to the character and purpose of the book. There are lessons here for everyone. I have written here before about the interesting parallels between Ireland’s current situation and the Czechs’ post-1989 economic restructuring, and in the lead-up to another re-run European referendum, Havel’s relationship with his successor, political enemy, and thorn in Europe’s side, current Czech president Václav Klaus, clearly merits our attention.
That Havel’s experience and views on the ‘old European disease’ that occasionally rears its head among the elder members of the EU, and frequent references to the Czech Republic’s history and role at the heart of the continent, are so relevant to today’s world shows just how far we have come in the last twenty years, and how far we have yet to travel to achieve the heights he and others set for it. Perhaps, as Havel himself wrote in another of the memos repeated in this book, this one from 11 April 1999, ‘We need a longer hose for watering.’