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To the Castle and Back

To the Castle and Back

4.7 3
by Václav Havel

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From the former president of the Czech Republic comes this first-hand account of his years in office and the transition to democracy following the fall of Communism.


A renowned playwright, Václav Havel became one of Czechoslovakia's most prominent dissidents under Communist rule – and the president after the Velvet Revolution,


From the former president of the Czech Republic comes this first-hand account of his years in office and the transition to democracy following the fall of Communism.


A renowned playwright, Václav Havel became one of Czechoslovakia's most prominent dissidents under Communist rule – and the president after the Velvet Revolution, making him a key player in European politics. Here we see first-hand the challenges of creating a new government, tempered with Havel's revealing insights into the difficulties posed by an era of increased globalization and conflict. He discusses not only the situation in his own country, but also such pressing issues as the future of the European Union, the war in Iraq, and the role of the United States in contemporary affairs. Written with an eye towards both the political and the personal and a witty, well-honed eloquence, To the Castle and Back is a rare glimpse into the minds of one of the most important political figures of modern times.

Editorial Reviews

Paul Berman
Vaclav Havel's To the Castle and Back is an artful, sly and touching self-portrait, cleverly and neurotically disguised as an artless heap of dry scribbled notes and wastebasket throwaways. In a preface to the English edition, Havel nearly advises us not to read the book at all. "If you occasionally feel like putting the book aside because it seems to skirt some of the world-shaking events that I lived through…I urge you to skip ahead." But don't listen to him.
—The New York Times
Foreign Affairs

In a clever pastiche perhaps substituting for the autobiography that may never be written, Havel interlaces daily reflections composed in 2005 during a two-month stay in Washington, several weeks at his summer place, Hradecek, and a stay at Hel, on the Baltic, with his responses in an extended interview with Karl Hvizdala, each part interrupted by the record of daily instructions to his staff over most of the ten years he was president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003). The staff instructions deal with the nitty-gritty of governing -- or sometimes only his battle with his personal computer or need to get his cigarette lighter fixed. The carefully paced interview is the book's heart. It covers in detail everything from Havel's view of himself to his relations with colleagues, friends, and foes, from the personal details of his life with his second wife to the string of late-life personal health crises. The reflections are more philosophical and increasingly streaked with the tribulations of a weakening body and mind, but they also contain fond, if sometimes hilarious, observations about Americans. The effect is of three movies running simultaneously and somehow overlapping to produce a whole.<

Library Journal
From playwright to dissident to president of Czechoslovakia to president of the Czech Republic to lung cancer patient to supporter of the Iraq war to opponent of that war: Havel has a lot of ground to cover here. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Moving and often beautifully expressed....To the Castle and Back gives us any number of sharp portrayals.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review“An artful, sly, and touching self portrait.” —The New York Times Book Review“Fascinating...Havel displays [democratization] in heartbreaking, frustrating reality.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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2 MB

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Chapter One

Washington, April 7, 2005

I've run away. I've run away to America. I've run away for two months, with the whole family; that is, with Dasa and our two boxers, Sugar and her daughter Madlenka. I've run away in the hope that I will find more time and focus to write something. I haven't been president now for two years, and I'm starting to worry about not having been able to write anything that holds together. When people ask me, as they do all the time, if I'm writing something and what I'm writing, I get mildly annoyed and I say that I've already written enough in my life, certainly more than most of my fellow citizens, and that writing isn't a duty one can perform on demand. I'm here as a guest of the Library of Congress, which has given me a very quiet and pleasant room where I can come whenever I want, to do whatever I want. They ask nothing from me in return. It's wonderful. Among other things, I would like to respond to Mr. Hvízdala's questions.

I'd like to start the conversation with a question that touches on the second half of the 1980s, when you became the most famous dissident in Central Europe, oras John Keane wrote"a star in the theater of opposition." Do you remember the moment when it first occurred to you that you would have to enter into politics, that your role as a playwright, essayist, and thinker would no longer suffice?

In the first place I'd take issue with the designation "star in the theater of opposition." We did everything we could not to separate ourselves into the "stars" and the others. The better known someone among us became, and thus the better protected from arbitrary repression, the more he tried to come out in defense of those who were less known and therefore more vulnerable. The regime, after all, held to the principle of "divide and conquer." To some they said: "How can you, sir, an educated man respected by everyone, demean yourself by associating with such losers?" To others they said: "Don't get mixed up with those guys; they're a protected species. They're always going to lie their way out of trouble, and they'll go scot-free and leave you to pay the price." It's understandable that in such circumstances we placed a special emphasis on the principle of the equality of everyone who somehow expressed opposition to the regime.

In the second place, you know very well that I have constant doubts about myself, that I blame myself for everything, plausible and implausible, that I'm not very fond of myself. An individual like me finds it very hard to accept, without protest, the claim that he is a "star."

On the other hand, I have to admit that I probably do have a certain ability to bring people together. As someone with a visceral aversion to conflict, tension, and confrontation, especially if they are pointless, and moreover, as someone who hates it when the conversation goes around in circles, I have always tried to contribute to a consensus among people and to find ways to transform a common position into visible action. Perhaps it was these qualities of mine that in the end—without my wanting to or trying to—brought me to the forefront and made me seem, to some, like a "star."

And now, finally, to the nub of your question: I don't think you can find any clear demarcation line in my life separating the time when I did not devote myself to politics from the time when I did. To some degree I have always been concerned with politics or public affairs, and to some degree I have always—even as a "mere" writer—been a political phenomenon. That's the way it works in totalitarian conditions: everything is political, even a rock concert. There were, of course, differences in the nature or the visibility of the political impact my activities had: in the 1960s, that impact was different from what it was in the 1980s. From that point of view, the one genuine watershed in my life was November 1989, when I agreed to become a candidate for the presidency. At that point the issue was no longer just the political impact of what I did; it was a political function, with all that that job entailed. I hesitated until the last minute.

Did the prospect frighten you or entice you?

I found it more frightening than enticing. It was something completely new. I hadn't prepared myself for a presidential role from my schooldays the way American presidents do. I had only a few hours to make a decision that would fundamentally change my life. In the end what probably won me over was the appeal to my sense of responsibility. People told me exactly what I would later often say to others when trying to draw them into politics: you can't spend your whole life criticizing something and then, when you have the chance to do it better, refuse to go near it. This appeal, moreover, was accompanied by an attempt to persuade me that my candidacy was the only possible solution in this particular revolutionary situation and that had I—as the central figure in this process—suddenly refused any further engagement, refused to bear the consequences of my own previous actions, it would have turned all our efforts upside down and been a slap in the face to everyone.

What did your wife at the time, Olga, who was known for her sharp judgments, have to say about it?

I have to say that she had unconditionally supported my previous "dissident" activities, but as far as running for president was concerned, she had the same misgivings I did, perhaps even stronger. But in the end she gave me her blessing.

In the mid-1980s, some of your colleagues, immediately after reading our book, Disturbing the Peace, began to suspect that you would enter politics. If I remember correctly, Milan Kundera shared that thought with Václav Belohradsky at the time. I first heard the idea that you ought to become president from Pavel Tigrid, who asked me in early January 1989 what my response to that would be. When did you first learn of these opinions, and what did you think of them?

I'm not surprised that Milan Kundera said that. I think he's always considered me a more political person than I did myself. When Pavel Tigrid wrote in his exile quarterly, Svedectví, that I should be the president, I took it as a joke, as I did later that summer when Adam Michnik said the same thing to me. If I'm not mistaken, it was my friend the rock-and-roller Michael Kocáb who first began to speak in all seriousness, during those revolutionary days, about the need for me to stand for president. In retrospect I seem to have been the very last to have taken the idea seriously.

Washington, April 8, 2005

I remember my previous visits to America. I was here for the first time for six weeks in the spring of 1968. In Prague, the Prague Spring was in blossom and the opportunity to travel came up, and so I immediately took up Joe Papp's invitation to attend the premiere of my play The Memorandum at the Public Theater in New York. At the time I was chairman of the Circle of Independent Writers, which we had set up shortly beforehand to counterbalance the party cell in the still all-powerful Union of Czechoslovak Writers, and I wrote our program on the plane, while drinking whiskey. (It would be worth looking up sometime; I daresay it would still seem relevant today.) There were many rural people on the plane with me, mostly from Slovakia, and many of them were flying for the first time in their lives. They were probably taking advantage of the favorable political climate to visit their rich relatives in America.

The descent into Kennedy Airport at sunset was fascinating. I'll never forget the experience. Someone was waiting for me at the airport and took me directly to a rehearsal of The Memorandum. I couldn't believe my eyes: here I was on the other side of the world, suddenly seeing my play being staged exactly as I had imagined it and the way we had presented it in the Theater on the Balustrade in Prague. People laughed or applauded in the very same places, which particularly surprised me given the fact that the translation was probably not great and there are some things in my plays that are simply untranslatable. After the rehearsal they took me to my hotel and I slept like a log. The next day I looked up my old friend and fellow student Milos Forman and I moved in with Jirí Voskovec, a wonderful man with whom I stayed for the rest of my visit.

The days I spent there were important in my life. The hippie movement was at its height. There were be-ins in Central Park. People were festooned with beads. It was the time of the musical Hair. (Joe had presented it in the Public Theater before my play opened, and because it was so successful it moved to Broadway, where I saw the premiere.) It was the time when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, a period of huge antiwar demonstrations whose inner ethospowerful but in no way fanaticalI admired; it was also the heyday of psychedelic art. I brought many posters home, and to this day they are hanging in Hradecek. And I brought home the first record of Lou Reed with the Velvet Underground.

My stay in the United States influenced me considerably. After I returned, my friends and I experienced a very joyful, albeit a somewhat nervous, summer, which could not have ended well; on August 21, the Soviet troops arrived. And then, seeing long-haired, bead-festooned young people waving the Czechoslovak flag in front of the Soviet tanks and singing a song that was a favorite among the hippies at the time, "Massachusetts," I had a truly strange sensation. In those circumstances it sounded a bit different from how it had sounded in Central Park, though it had essentially the same ethos: the longing for a free and colorful and poetic world without violence.

The second time I visited Americaafter a long and gloomy twenty-two yearsI was president of my country. The former hippies were now no doubt respected senators or bosses of multinational corporations. Since then I've been here at least ten times; I've become close to three American presidents and to many American politicians (a special role among them was played by my compatriot the marvelous Madeleine Albright), as well as to important people and to many famous stars. These working or state or official visits, however, were brief and the program was always full, so that I only saw America from a speeding limousine. I sometimes found time to go for a walk or visit a rock club, but it was never easy. And so now, here I am on my second long visit almost forty years after the first one. In the meantime, I've lived through quite a bit, and perhaps precisely for that reasonparadoxicallyI long for the freedom of movement I once enjoyed here when I was in my thirties.

Why is it that after Slum Clearance, which you wrote in 1987, you didn't write another play until the Velvet Revolution, unless I count Tomorrow, which you wrote on commission for the Theater on a String and which was performed at the time, obviously, under a pseudonym? Before that, you had written a new play almost every two years. It makes me think that by then you had already been drawn too deeply into politics to write.

I admit that as time went on, I had less and less time to write plays. After all, by the late 1980s I had almost become a kind of public institution, so much so that I had to have a full-time secretary—my friend Vladimír Hanzel—which was not common for someone in the opposition. Still, I don't think there was an exceptional hiatus in my playwriting at that time. In any case the revolution caught me at a time when I had a new play already half written, even though it was only a first and very rough draft.

(October 4, 1993)

(. . .)

5) In the morning I am going to have to issue a statement on the situation in Russia. Have Mr. S. and Mr. S. come by and we'll write something. The prime minister called me: he wants to coordinate our statements. We'll get in touch with him when we've written it, but perhaps he'll call before that. Or Zieleniec.

If so, put me on the line. (. . .)

9) Please have Mrs. M. or E. prepare the pike from Lány that was given to me in some very original way, with unique spicing, so that the parliamentary five will never forget it. (. . .)

(October 17, 1993)

(. . .)

2) Would someone please prepare, from our various tape recordings and from the notes taken by Mrs. B., a complete transcript of the conversations with Kohl. At the dinner, you made notes (and there too some very important things were said, about Poland for instance). The transcript will be top secret and it will be for our use only, and we will give it to someone from the outside to read only after very serious consideration.

3) It's an even more urgent task to write the first version of the letters of invitations for the Central European presidents. I've been asking for them since July, and now it's high time. I should have them by next weekend for editing.

Next weekend I should also have all the source materials for a letter to Zieleniec that I want to write over the weekend. (In my own way I have an idea about how to go about it; I only need all the source materials: for example, a few sentences on every event, its genesis, its political significance, its context, etc.).

4) I'm going to try tomorrow, that is, on Sunday, to work on the speech to be delivered in the Vladislav Hall on October 28, and the one I'll give during the oath-taking. If I manage to draft them I'll send them immediately for consultation. (. . .)

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Václav Havel was born in Czechoslovakia in 1936. His plays have been produced around the world, and he is the author of many influential essays on totalitarianism and dissent. He was a founding spokesman for Charter 77 and served as president of the Czech Republic until 2003. He died in 2011 at the age of 75.

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To the Castle and Back 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Vaclav Havel answers provocative questions from Karel Hvisdala, and adds his own journalings past and present. The book covers the period after the breakup of Czechoslovakia, Havel's Presidency of the Czech Republic, and his alleged retirement--anything but--up to 2006. He tells about his political struggles with the "postcommunists", his attempts to maintain and improve The Castle(the Czech White House), and the loss of Olga, his first wife, from cancer(which he was operated on for also, during his term). There's a great deal of Havel's philosophy here too, and his grudging respect for the USA. A very full book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago