Mapping the Century with Václav Havel

Last Sunday, December 18, the world was shaken by the news of the death of one of the most remarkable intellectuals to have lived in the XX century: Václav Havel. And by “the world” I mean not the literary world, or the intellectual establishment; I am not even speaking about the international diplomatic services or the hoards of politicians that seem to proliferate at a staggering pace in Europe. I mean, in general terms, the people, who largely felt they were represented through his plays, especially, of course in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia, but also, perhaps even astonishingly, in the rest of the world.

In some sense, that is what you would come to expect with the death of every famous writer. Indeed, the strange connection that grows between authors and their audience hangs precisely from the sort of reciprocal empathy that allows writers to reproduce characters and situations totally alien to them, and readers to find themselves indirectly engaged with the creators, through their work. It is a more subtle liaison than, say, actors or singers have with their audience, where the rapport is direct and visual. For this very reason, perhaps, the relationship is less intense than with popular celebrities – rather a long burner, instead of an explosive reaction. Therefore, too, spontaneous expressions of mass bereavement and collective mournful tributes such as were seen in Prague over the past week are usually reserved figures like Michael Jackson or Marco Simoncelli, not to high-brow intellectuals.

Then again, Václav (pronounced Vatslaf) Havel was not your standard, everyday intellectual. Born in 1936 to a well-to-do family in Prague, Havel’s life was fundamentally altered at several points by some of the most significant events of the XX century, a turbulent period of time, to say the least. As such, his extraordinary tale provides us with an enviable tool to draw a rough and somewhat tragic picture of the history of the West in the past century. Because, even though Havel was 75 when he passed away, his infancy was shaped by what came before him: by the Great War and the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire, which resulted, among other things, in the creation of a new country, Czechoslovakia, and a new rule, within which his family flourished.

The general debacle of World War II hit Czechoslovakia in the face, effectively disintegrating the country and incorporating modern-day Czech Republic into Germany even before the outbreak of the conflict. But the end of the war, far from harvesting the fervor of victory and liberation that could be seen across much of Europe, brought uncertainty of another kind, in the threatening shape of a communist regime that came to power in 1948. Inevitably, Czechoslovakia was aligned with the eastern bloc that gravitated around the Soviet Union, and the measures that were originally conceived to attain the greater good of the masses soon became inexorable dogmas used as much to intimidate or punish specific portions of society as to achieve constructive results.

Havel. Photo:

It was within this less than ideal environment that the young Václav grew into an adolescent. Victim of the spiteful discrimination of the communist agenda, his education was cut short by the State when he was 15 years old on the grounds that he was too “bourgeois” (a synonym of “the enemy” in communist jargon) to merit further instruction. Forced to work from that early age, Havel became an apprentice in a pharmaceutical laboratory and worked as a taxi driver to fund the evening school where he completed his secondary education. Further education was no easier for Havel: banned as he was from pursuing any artistic subjects, he started a degree in economics and studied drama by correspondence. By the early 60s, he was working in a small theater in Prague, and just a few years later he would write and produce his first and most famous piece, The Garden Party.

These details are important to appraise the literary work of Havel, not only from a personal point of view, but to place it within the wider context in which they were produced. From the early 60s, up until the Prague Spring – a turbulent period of political reform in the country which was violently brought to an end by Soviet intervention in August, 1968 – Havel acted as an intellectual non-conformist, who exploited the resources available to him in order to portray in the most vivid form acceptable to the regime, the shortcomings and contradictions inherent to the communist political structure that governed his country. In other words, initially Havel worked from within, in order to try to change the system organically.

Often referred to as a major exponent of Absurdist Theater, Havel’s use of the nonsensical is more grounded on the reality he was forced to live (and therefore, is more fundamental) than the trademark Absurdism of Beckett or Ionesco. In this sense, Havel makes no great claims about human nature or religion, but rather condemns the futility of the growing bureaucratic machine within the communist establishment; attacks the flagrant opportunism of indoctrinated civil servants, trained to pledge their unquestioning allegiance to the resolutions of the party, no matter what; exposes the emptiness of highly specialized idiosyncratic terminology; and, ultimately, reveals the collapse of the sort of dialectic conceptualization that was the cornerstone of Marxist ideology. Today, this might all sound terribly outdated, but back in 1963, the possibility of publicly performing a play, The Garden Party, that successfully covered all those points was not only far-fetched, it was incredible risky.

Havel’s plays up to 1968 (The Memorandum (1965), The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968)), all deal with these issues in ways that escape reduction to a single plotline, precisely because, in the end, in these plays, like in daily routine in communist Czechoslovakia at the time, nothing happened at all. Following the repression of 1968, Havel entered the next stage of his life, escalating to the status of underground dissident, as his plays no longer would be allowed to be performed. In a sense, then, the politicization of Havel’s work was almost forced upon him, ultimately turning him into one of the primary promoters of what came to be known as the “Charter 77,” a subversive political group led by intellectuals, whose primary aim was the toppling of the communist regime. During this period, Havel’s drama, much of it autobiographic single-act plays (known as the Vanek plays, including Audience, Protest and Mistake), as well as the political manifesto of Charter 77 had to be disseminated through clandestine means, such as the samizdat, a carbon copy of the manuscript typed on onion paper.

Eventually, Havel was singled out by the authorities and sent to prison for four and a half years in 1979. He was released for ill health in 1983, and from that point forward he would establish himself as a lucid non-fiction writer, with his Power of the Powerless standing out as one of his most notable books. The world was taking yet another turn, the darkest days of the Cold War were coming to an end, and soon enough Czechoslovakia would be swept by the demise of communism. And Havel, again, would be in thick of things.  

Personable, likeable and renowned, he emerged as the ideal candidate to lead the transition from the totalitarian regime of old to a nascent democratic tradition. Havel’s career as a dramatist was practically over, although he would still write a lot of non-fiction, especially during the first years of his political career. But primarily, he would refashion himself as a charismatic, if somewhat unorthodox, statesman. Famous is the anecdote of his reaction when he first got to the Presidential Palace in Prague: stunned by its size, he got a scooter and drove around the premises repeatedly! Less amusing was his share of the responsibility in failing to keep Czechs and Slovaks happy together (perchance an impossible task) which ultimately led to the disintegration of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Nevertheless, the balance sheet of his political career will always feature as a major plus his role in rekindling the embers of democracy, which had burned vigorously in his home country during the intra war period, and which have established themselves firmly in both the contemporary Czech and Slovak political systems. After completing his second term as President of the Czech Republic, Havel retired from politics. He would still have time, in his later years, to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a cineaste, filming a version of his play, Leaving, earlier in 2011.

Persecuted and revered at different times, Havel went through practically every stage conceivable for a modern man during his lifetime. His affinity towards the people, however, was not a learned trick: from his earliest plays, he was always able to connect with his audience through a subtle, almost unintelligible humor, to the point where they appeal a lot more than they narrate. Today, a nation mourns and the world shares its loss, because what is left, his work, is less striking, perhaps less relevant these days, than what is gone, his life – what fellow Czech intellectual, Milan Kundera, has labeled his greatest accomplishment. And who could disagree, considering what a life it was!




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