Sunday, June 17, 2007

A statesman reminisces

In this season of unhappy regime changes, both of governments (Tony Blair) and international financial institutions (Paul Wolfowitz), here comes a biography which is at once a study of the postcommunist paradoxes of eastern Europe and an example of restrained dialogue with the self. Playwright Václav Havel shone in the international spotlight in 1989 when he was elected President of Czechoslovakia. Always politically active, most notably as a founder member of Charter 77 and through his anti-communist writings, Havel nevertheless was ill prepared for the barrage of responsibilities that came his way as the new President. These are the memoirs of a man who was forced to shun the private world of his writing to adopt the public platform of governance.

Three different narrative techniques crowd this book, each demarcated from the other by horizontal lines. Havel himself claims in the preface that one may read any one of the three at a time, and still get a fair picture of his life. The first of these is Havel's personal observations during his stay in America during April-May 2005. These observations give us a rich peek into the fertile imagination of the writer-philosopher. Havel discusses everything from Americans' driving habits to the effects of Sep 11 on the nation's psyche. He rues his inability to write given the demands on his time, but speaks lovingly of his wonderful stay in the US.

The second is a series of memos—unedited official transcripts—from Havel's presidential years. In these writings, Havel comes across as a hands-on President:

(April 16, 1996)

1) Today (Saturday) I dashed off the first draft of my speech for Latvia…I would ask for comments from all the usual commentators. (…) I must have them by Tuesday around 3:00 P.M. if I am to finish editing it by Tuesday afternoon, so the translation can be started and the speech copied and printed, etc. on Wednesday morning. (…)

But by far the longest and most interesting segment of the book is Havel's interview with Karel Hvížďala, a Czech journalist and broadcaster widely considered the father of Czech journalism. In the Q&A format that Havel and Hvížďala partake, Havel opens up truly and holds forth on a host of issues. So we come to know about the trials of running affairs in the Prague Castle (the seat of Czech Presidency); his political rivalry with then prime minister, Václav Klaus; his battle with lung cancer which forced him to quit smoking ("I feel a deep affinity with smokers and I enjoy breathing secondhand smoke in their presence"); his intense love for his mercurial second wife, the Czech actress Dagmar Veskrnová; and his worries about the future of the European Union (Havel is a confirmed "Euroenthusiast"). The translation by Paul Wilson is excellent, retaining the feel of the original discourse.

Havel is never impolite, even when he is facing up to his critics and it is this essential humanity of the former dissident-turned-statesman that deeply endears him to anyone who'd have the good sense to pick this book and dwell into an interesting era of the late twentieth century.

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From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

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