Magazine article The Spectator

The Revolutionary, the President, the Playwright

Magazine article The Spectator

The Revolutionary, the President, the Playwright

Article excerpt

TO THE CASTLE AND BACK by Vaclav Havel Portobello Books, £20, pp. 383, ISBN 9781846271373 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

A troika of heroic Slavic statesmen played the key roles in the last great drama of European history -- the collapse of Soviet Communism. They were Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa and Václav Havel. All are still feted in Western capitals and can command high fees on the international lecture circuit. All are treated with disdain bordering on contempt in their own countries, where nowadays they can barely get themselves interviewed on local TV. Of the three, Havel, naturally, is the best able to write about how all political careers end in failure, however many magnificent and unexpected victories there may be along the way.

Havel describes To the Castle and Back as 'this strange little book of mine'. As is typical of his ironic writing style, this is an understatement. It is a very eccentric book, brilliant in parts, full of marvellously original insights into literature and politics, but entirely unstructured. We see a little of Havel the absurdist playwright/philosopher and a little of Havel the dissident whose imaginative analysis of living under totalitarianism was the most powerful intellectual challenge to Communism that the Soviet Union faced. We see Havel as the Velvet Revolutionary, a man of action, and then the hero as President, who has swapped late nights with other intellectuals in bohemian pubs for a more constricted life surrounded by flunkeys in the 'castle' of the title.

The problem is that this is three books trying to be one and not always succeeding.

The main section is an extended interview Havel gave to the Czech journalist Karel Hvíd'ala. A small part of this interview is about 1989, the year of revolutions, when the Iron Curtain came down in a dizzying few months of high drama. But most concerns Havel's time as President from 1990 to 2003. A parallel section contains a series of emails, notes and instructions President Havel wrote to his advisers and officials about day-to-day affairs in Czech politics.

Fascinating though some of these are, it is often difficult to see how they connect to the third parallel section of the book, a diary Havel kept of a two-month visit to the United States in 2005, after he stepped down from the Presidency.

Although he does not say so in simple or straightforward terms, Havel partly acknowledges that the great tragedy of the third act of his life was that he stayed on the political stage too long. …

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