Havel’s Castle

October 5: VaclavHavel was born on this day in 1936 in Prague. In To the Castle and Back, his 2007 memoir-meditation on his decadesin politics, Havel issues this caution to the next generation of politicians,or its electorate:

The European Union occasionally still suffers from the oldEuropean disease, which is the tendency to make compromises with evil, to closeone’s eyes to dictatorship, to practice a politics of appeasement or even ofaccommodation…. Accommodating evil has, so far, never forced evil to retreat,or to become more humane; on the contrary, it has always made life easier forit. In the end, when confrontation came, the price that everyone had to pay wasinfinitely higher than the cost of a firm stance.

This has been one of the primary themes in Havel’s literarywork. The Memorandum, his 1965 blackcomedy on the horrors of bureaucratic red tape, portrays communistCzechoslovakia as a land of Orwellian double-speak and Hellerian Catch-22s,with Head Office deep inside Kafka’s Castle.In mortal fear of displeasing the higher-ups, the Managing Director mustendorse “Ptydepe,” the new official language of all memos anddirectives. An engineering marvel, Ptydepe is, in theory, logical andscientific; in practice, it is inscrutable and long, with some words over 300letters. And, should any head-scratching rubber-stamper want one, a translationfrom Ptydepe is nigh impossible, as it requires an authorization from someonewho needs an authorization from someone who, by definition, can’t give it. Thetoo-familiar bottom line: the only way to find out what Head Office wants is toknow it already. But some aspects of the new language make perfect sense,especially to a shoulder-shrugging clerk named Thumb, here at Ptydepe trainingclass:

LEAR [the instructor]: …You see, the vocabulary of Ptydepeis built according to an entirely logical principle: the more common themeaning the shorter the word. Thus, for example, the most commonly used term sofar known—that is the term “whatever”—is rendered in Ptydepe by theword “gh.” As you can see, it is a word consisting of only twoletters. There exists, however, an even shorter word—that is “f”—butthis word does not yet carry any meaning. I wonder if any of you can tell mewhy. Well?

(Only THUMB raises his hand.)

LEAR: Well, Mr. Thumb?

THUMB (gets up): It’s being held in reserve in case scienceshould discover a term even more commonly used than the term”whatever.”

LEAR: Correct, Mr. Thumb. You get an A.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.