Posts Tagged ‘Czechoslovakia’

Václav Havel, To the Castle and Back (London, 2007)

27 August 2009

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Vaclav Havel - To the Castle and BackBefore 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.’

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The Beggar’s Opera

5 August 2009

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Vaclav HavelIsn’t it funny how history can always teach you something? Or, more appropriately, remind you what you should have learned, after it’s too late? I’m reading To the Castle and Back at the moment, the autobiography of playwright and former Czech president (1989-2003) Václav Havel. It is, as you might expect, no ordinary memoir. Compelling and brilliantly written across three parallel narratives (interviews, reflections, and instructions to his staff), Havel’s experiences offer a fascinating account of the transition to democracy and the travails of a country (and, after 1993, two countries) re-asserting its place in the modern world. A very different situation to our own current malaise, yes, but as anyone who has been in Tesco’s ten floors across two buildings in the centre of Bratislava will attest, there’s a certain parallel with the more is better, grab-what-you-can climate of the last fifteen years.

Quelle surprise then, that Havel, recalling the privatisation of the Czechoslovak economy (pp. 158-9), should write in terms that resonate so strongly with post-Tiger Namaland.

Many years later I began, for the second time, to change my mind. It happened when I observed that the majority of our most dubious new capitalists, Mafiosi, and entrepreneurial con men had emerged from the small privatisation process, that is to say, from the auctioning off of small business. At the time, anyone could borrow money, buy any property at an auction, and then either sell it off again at a profit or strip the assets and file for bankruptcy. Then all they had to do was keep on investing borrowed money, without, of course, ever returning the loan. This led to the collapse of banks or to enormous state bailouts in the banking sector. Read More