Tanned and Rested: Vaclav Havel Marks His Return with 'Leaving'

By Zantovsky, Michael | World Affairs, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

Tanned and Rested: Vaclav Havel Marks His Return with 'Leaving'


Zantovsky, Michael, World Affairs


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The Czech spa town of Frantiskovy Lazne (Franzensbad to Germans) is known mostly for peat-based wraps administered to cardiac patients and infertile women. Compared to the world-renowned Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), with its processions of moneyed Russians, from czars of old to some of the latest oligarchs--or to the almost equally well-known Marianske Lazne (Marienbad), whose Last Year was famously celebrated by new-wave filmmaker Alain Resnais--Frantiskovy Lazne remains a minor destination. True, Goethe visited there at least thirty-three times, but much of the time he was nearly out of his mind over the teenage Ulrike von Levetzow, who lived nearby. The other visitor of note was Richard Wagner, who was not known for his mental stability either.

Today, the resort looks much like it did a century ago, a sleepy enclave of tranquility in a sea of highways, gas stations, shopping centers, and housing projects. The spa pavilions, which are something between a hotel and a hospital, are discreetly hidden inside a big park. People, mostly patients with deeply concentrated expressions on their faces, move around at a noticeably slower pace. Of all the villas where one can spend a fortnight buried up to the neck therapeutically in a heap of smelly mud, Hotel Imperial is the most romantic and the least inexpensive, bringing to mind the image of an expensively refurbished Pavilion No. 6 from the eponymous Chekhov short story. One does not immediately recognize it as the kind of place where Vaclav Havel would go for treatment, but that is in fact where he went to "take the waters"--and where I came looking for him--last summer.

When Havel retired in February 2003, after four presidential terms and thirteen years at the helm of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, two different though not unrelated countries, he was sixty-six years old. Over roughly half a century of his adult life he was a minor poet, celebrated playwright, leading dissident, political prisoner of almost five years, profound thinker, velvet revolutionary, and one of the most respected statesmen of his generation. Because of a nearly fatal bout of pneumonia in prison and an even more threatening bout of lung cancer during his time in office that was in all likelihood the consequence both of his prison illness and his decades of chain-smoking, his health was extremely frail. To friends and strangers alike, he also looked to be totally exhausted and spent after presiding over one of the most dramatic, totally exhilarating, and on occasion deeply painful decades in the nation's history.

Looking back, he might also be forgiven for having some mixed feelings. Although the things he set out to do--transforming the country into a parliamentary democracy governed by the rule of law, increasingly prosperous thanks to market economy, and part and parcel of the West thanks to its membership in NATO, OECD, and the EU--were all accomplished during his presidency, at the moment of his departure his political and personal status did not quite correspond to the momentous achievements in which he played a leading part. The onetime icon of the Velvet Revolution had gradually lost much of his power, if not his influence--some of it to constitutional changes, some to the emergence of competing sources of political power--and he had been criticized and then ridiculed by some as an impractical, irrelevant dreamer, or a devious, overambitious schemer, and sometimes as both at the same time. His international aura of a moral politician, a paragon of tolerance, nonviolence, and humanistic values, had also started to evaporate due to his association with some of the more controversial political events and decisions of recent decades.

Naturally, a large part of the criticism above could be attributed to the endemic ill will permeating the world of party politics. When not living in moments of historical upheaval, existential threat, and revolutionary change, politicians have to deal with the recurring problems and issues of economy, security, and welfare that can cut any legend down to size. …

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