Havel on Havel from Absurdist Playwright to the Verge of Leading Czechoslovakia

Article excerpt

THIS will no doubt be Vaclav Havel's most popular book. It's a virtual autobiography, stopping just short of his emergence as a leader of democratic Czechoslovakia. As an autobiography, it's the modern, Warsaw Pact version of rags-to-riches by the seat of the hero's virtues. Unlike Havel's plays, it's not a symbolic protest against dehumanizing systems of society and thinking. And unlike his meditations in "Letters to Olga," where he was necessarily obscure in order to get past the prison censor during his four-year term of hard labor from 1979-1983, "Disturbing the Peace" is as direct, witty, and trenchant as the man himself.

Composed from tape-recorded interviews and correspondence in 1986, "Disturbing the Peace" was first published by the underground press; in 1989 it was the first samizdat publication to be published legally after the democratic revolution. Paul Wilson has retained something of Havel's conversational style by translating the work first into a tape recorder, then editing the transcript. The the book is chronological, but there are Havelian digressions not unfamiliar to the reader of the prison letters.

It's a portrait of an outsider. Born into a prosperous capitalist family persecuted for its social position, Havel was not allowed to enter high school. A precocious writer, he discovered the theater in the Army. During the 1960s, his plays protested the absurdity of the ideological state of mind and the rigidity of the socialist state. They were banned, and they remained banned until after the revolution.

Explaining his writing for the theater, Havel says, "It was a manifestation of uncensored life, life that spits on all ideology and all that lofty world of babble; a life that intrinsically resisted all forms of violence, all interpretations, all directives."

Always retiring, Havel did not take public positions until the Soviet invasion of 1969, when the reform government of Dubcek was replaced by a Soviet minion. In the '70s, he became active in human-rights organizations. He calls the period of detente "this naive, thickheaded, and suicidal way of easing tensions," but Havel gradually evolved a practical politics that avoided battles of words and sought short-term goals. …