Havel: A Life

Havel: A Life

by Michael Zantovsky


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Václav Havel was one of the most prominent figures of the twentieth century: iconoclast and intellectual, renowned playwright turned political dissident, president of a united then divided nation, and dedicated human rights activist. Written by Michael Zantovsky—Havel’s former press secretary, advisor, and longtime friend—Havel: A Life presents a revelatory portrait of this giant among men and the turbulent times through which he prevailed.

Havel’s lifelong perspective as an outsider began with his privileged childhood in Prague and his family’s blacklisted status following the Communist coup of 1948. This feeling of being outcast fueled his career as an essayist and dramatist, writing absurdist plays as social commentary. His involvement during the Prague Spring and his leadership of Charter 77, his unflagging belief in the power of the powerless, and his galvanizing personality catapulted Havel into a pivotal role as the leader of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Although Havel was a courageous visionary, he was also a man of great contradictions, wracked with doubt and self-criticism. But he always remained true to himself. Over the next thirteen years, he continued to break through international barriers as the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802123152
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 11/04/2014
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

Michael Zantovsky is the current Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James and president of the Aspen Institute Prague. He was among the founding members of the movement that coordinated the overthrow of the Communist regime. In January 1990 he became the spokesman, press secretary, and advisor to President Václav Havel. He was the later the Czech ambassador to Washington and Tel Aviv. He combined a career in politics and the foreign service with work as author and translator into Czech many contemporary British and American writers.

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18 December 2011, A Dark Cold Day

He disappeared in the dead of winter: The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted, And snow disfigured the public statues; The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day. What instruments we have agree The day of his death was a dark cold day ...

– W. H. Auden, 'In memory of W. B. Yeats'

It was a wintry Sunday morning in Prague on the last weekend before the Christmas holidays. Most people's thoughts revolved around wrapping up their Christmas presents and perhaps getting some rest. It had not been a particularly happy year. Although the country was faring better than most in the midst of a European debt crisis, the economy was slowing down, and the austerity measures were beginning to bite.

The news, when it came, first on the social networks, and soon through the general media channels, came as a shock, although it ought not to have. The whole nation had known that the ex-president was ailing. Since the spring, his friends had been aware how serious his condition was. This was not the result of any acute ailment, but rather a progressive general exhaustion combined with a sudden loss of the will and the fighting spirit that had characterized him for most of his life.

If there was no sustained public interest in Václav Havel's condition, no media deathwatch outside his house, it was simply because the ex-president appeared to be old news, no longer relevant to current events and issues. He was still a subject of moderate interest to cultural and literary editors because of his recent creative exploits, and his name sometimes appeared next to his wife's in the celebrity pages. The house at Hrádecek, where he had been spending his last months, was a hundred miles away from Prague on a bad country road, with few hotels or restaurants nearby. To the media hounds, it was hardly worth the trouble.

Prime Minister Petr Necas, appearing on a Sunday television talk show at the moment the news broke, was the first to respond publicly. 'His death is a great loss,' he said respectfully. Still nothing suggested more than a few days of polite mourning for a figure from the past.

Shortly after noon, people started to bring flowers and candles to the Castle and to lay them at the perimeter fence. Flowers and candles also appeared around the house at Hrádecek. Some good soul left two bottles of beer from the brewery in Trutnov, which had inspired Havel to write Audience.

At 2 p.m., Havel's successor as president chimed in. 'Václav Havel has become the symbol of our modern Czech state,' said Václav Klaus. No one expected him to be ungenerous at that moment, and yet there was something remarkable in this sweeping eulogy by a man who disagreed with Havel on so many day-to-day issues of Czech politics.

A crowd began to gather spontaneously on the square under the statue of St Wenceslas, where the demonstrations had begun in 1989. People stood and rattled their keys, just as they had in November 1989. A group marched to the river, taking the same route as the student demonstration on 17 November, which set off the Velvet avalanche, but in the opposite direction. The marchers paused at the plaque honouring that seminal moment in Czech history. Some left packs of cigarettes.

There were few overt expressions of grief, no rending of garments, no hysterics. When, ten weeks later, Sir Tom Stoppard paid Havel the tribute of quoting John Motley's eulogy of William of Orange, 'As long as he lived he was the guiding star of a whole brave nation, and when he died the little children cried in the street,' he himself admitted to 'sentimental hyperbole'. The feeling was that of a communal memory, of remembrance and, yes, of celebration. There were gatherings in other towns and cities throughout the Czech Republic as well.

One could not help ponder the contrast with another kind of mourning half a world away. Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader of North Korea, died just the day before. There, W. H. Auden's paraphrase of Motley's words was irrefutably apt: 'When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter. And when he cried, the little children died in the streets.' The Korean state news agency aired footage of huge columns of people wailing in unison. No doubt, many of the 200,000 political prisoners in the country were crying as well, though theirs were tears of joy.

Condolences started to come in from abroad, some official, from heads of states and governments, others from friends, former dissidents and writers. Russian state TV contributed a eulogy of its own: 'Václav Havel was the main driving force of democratization in Czechoslovakia, and the grave-digger of the advanced Czech arms industry, whose demise was one of the causes of the break-up of Czechoslovakia.' A balanced assessment, straight from The Garden Party.

The spokesman for the Association of Czech Travel Agencies managed to see the bright side. 'For a long time the Czech Republic had not been as visible as this,' said Tomio Okamura, who would announce his own candidacy for president just a few weeks later. 'In winter people are deciding about where they will go for their summer vacations, and although Havel's demise is a sad thing, it is a very good advertisement for the country.'

On Monday, in what was still a family affair, Havel's remains were brought to Prague in a simple casket, and laid in state at the Prague Crossroads, the Gothic church that he and his wife Dagmar had restored and turned into a cultural shrine and meeting place. For the next two days and throughout the night, people lined up to pay their respects. The government declared a state of mourning. The government of Slovakia, a country that at one time seemed to have repudiated Havel, did the same.

On Wednesday, the state took over. The casket made its journey across the river and up the hill to the Castle, followed by thousands of people. In the Castle Guard Barracks it was loaded on the same gun carriage that had been used for the funeral of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, and carried to the Vladislav Hall in the Prague Castle, the fifteenth-century seat of coronation ceremonies, and the venue of Havel's first election to the presidency. Once again Klaus was up to the task: 'Our Velvet Revolution and the era of restoration of freedom and democracy will always remain associated with his name. More than anyone else, he deserves the credit for the international standing of the Czech Republic, its prestige and its authority ... As a writer and playwright he believed in the power of the word to change the world.'

Friday, 23 December, the day of the funeral, was also the last day before the traditional start of the Czech holiday season on Christmas Eve. Despite the inconvenient timing, government planes started landing in quick succession at Prague's Ruzyne Airport, soon to bear the deceased's name. In what seemed an unending procession of black limousines, their passengers, eighteen heads of state and government and other dignitaries, including President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Lech Walesa, John Major and Prince Hassan of Jordan, proceeded to the St Vitus Cathedral at the Prague Castle, where they joined around two thousand Czech government officials, friends and family.

In a familiar dilemma, I found myself torn between the need to mourn freely for a friend and the duties of the ambassador to the Court of St James's, which included being on the tarmac to greet the current and former British Prime Ministers. I knew I could never make it to the cathedral in time for the ceremony, for the prime ministers were late, and their motorcade was leaving airside straight from the tarmac, while my driver was waiting kerbside half a mile away. Without a police escort, which only the motorcade had, I would never make it through the security checks in time for the ceremony. The secret servicewoman in charge coldly vetoed my plea to piggyback on the motorcade. Trying to think what Havel would do, I jumped into the already moving limousine of Sean McLeod, the empathetic British ambassador to Prague, before the secret servicewoman could speak a word into her jacket sleeve. I slipped into my seat at the cathedral with the first notes of music.

Just as Havel, a non-denominational believer, was honoured at his election by the Te Deum mass, he was now treated to a Catholic mass, accompanied by Antonín Dvorák's Requiem. Josef Abrhám, who played Chancellor Rieger in the film version of Leaving, read Dies Irae, words that uncannily reflected Havel's own thinking:

Great trembling there will be when the Judge descends from heaven to examine all things closely.

The trumpet will send its wondrous sound throughout earth's sepulchres and gather all before the throne.

Death and nature will be astounded,
when all creation rises again,
to answer the judgement.

A book will be brought forth,
in which all will be written,
by which the world will be judged.

Havel did not die a Roman Catholic, and during his last days he never asked for the last rites, but his sense of theatre and ritual would have been gratified by the liturgy, celebrated by his fellow prisoner Cardinal Duka, and by the procession that preceded it. He would have enjoyed, albeit with some embarrassment, hearing the praise from friends, Madeleine Albright, his fellow Velvet revolutionary, Bishop Václav Maly, and Karel Schwarzenberg.

For the third time, the president spoke, this time on Havel's spiritual legacy, embodied in the ideas that 'freedom is a value worth sacrificing for', that 'it is easy to lose freedom, if we care little about it and do not protect it', that 'human existence extends into the transcendental realm, of which we should be aware', that 'freedom is a universal principle', that there is 'tremendous power in a word; it can kill and it can heal, it can hurt and it can help', that 'it is able to change the world', that 'the truth should be said, even if it is uncomfortable' and that 'minority opinion is not necessarily wrong'. There were many words of praise that day, but these may have weighed more than most, simply because of the man who uttered them.

While the heads of states and foreign dignitaries attended a reception given by the president, family and friends, myself among them, were making their way across town to the funeral hall of the crematorium in Strašnice for a last goodbye. Unlike in the cathedral, the speeches here were numerous, improvised and mostly heartfelt, though forgettable. Some of the closest friends chose not to speak at all. It was as much a chance to say hello to the others present as to say goodbye to the one who was gone. Then the curtain fell.

There was still a third act to follow, an evening of music, performance and entertainment, to honour Havel the bohemian intellectual, the rock 'n' roll aficionado and the chief of an Indian nation, a title awarded to him by an open-air rock festival in Trutnov. It took place in the Lucerna Hall, the house that Havel's grandfather built. The last number on the bill belonged to the Plastic People of the Universe, a band that had played an influential role both in Havel's life and in Czech history.

It was an amazing week, a week of mourning a loss, and a celebration of a great find, or perhaps a rediscovery. People emerged from 'the cells of themselves', and at least for a while forgot about the coming winter, the thousand necessities of a family Christmas and the uncertain perspectives ahead. They joined in a rite of mourning and respect, were nice to their fellow men and spoke kindly of their enemies. In this strange mixture of sadness and joy, the latter seemed to have prevailed, joy at being confronted with greatness. Havel would have disliked that word. He would have been a little embarrassed by it all, and his comments would reflect a combination of modest pleasure with subtle irony, and a sense of wonder about a nation that he sometimes said was capable of the most amazing feats of dignity, solidarity and courage, if only for a couple of weeks once every twenty years.


Born with a Silver Spoon

Mythologies matter. In retrospect, it seems hardly accidental that the first-born son of a prosperous Prague family, which epitomized in miniature the achievements of a newly independent nation with an ancient history, received his name after the patron saint of Bohemia. Nor does it seem accidental that by virtue of his birth and name he became heir to a dynasty. Just as St Wenceslas, the tenth-century Premyslid duke, came to be followed by three kings of the same name, the founder of the Havel dynasty, an entrepreneurial miller's son and part-time spiritualist, Vácslav Havel, gave his name to his son Václav Maria, who in turn did the same, on 5 October 1936, for his own son, the future president. The mythology does not end there, for the legendary treatment of the historical St Wenceslas constitutes a direct equivalent to the Arthurian tale, possibly with the same antecedents. Not far from Prague there is a hill called Blaník, conceivably a sister knoll of Planig in the Rhineland, Blagny near Dijon and Bligny near Paris, all of them with Celtic roots, inside which an army of knights is said to be sleeping and waiting for the moment when things could not be worse for the Czech nation, at which point, under the command of St Wenceslas himself, they will come to its rescue. Anybody using the name for the third time in as many generations must have aimed high.

There were good reasons for such ambitions. Starting from scratch with a small town sewerage project, the eldest Havel had built a construction and property empire, which included the proud townhouse on the banks of the Vltava River where the family lived; nevertheless, his crowning achievement was the big commercial and entertainment complex called Lucerna on the conveniently named Wenceslas Square, at once the Piccadilly and the Champs Elyseés of the bustling town. The first edifice built of reinforced concrete in the city, it was dubbed 'Palace' at the time, but with its dance hall, shops, bars, a cinema, a music club and numerous offices it might today be called a mall. Prague is not a city the size of New York or London, but neither is it a small town, and so the regularity with which the above places and symbols crop up time and again in the story of Václav Havel's life is quite remarkable.

Vácslav's two sons were no slouches, either. Václav Maria followed in his father's footsteps and expanded the construction and property business, although he was hard hit by the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Inspired as a young man by his trip to California, he conceived of an exclusive property development on the Barrandov Hills above the Vltava River, hired the foremost modern architects to build the first flat-roof, functionalist villas there, so unlike the typical Prague gable-roofed houses, and added an American-style bar and restaurant with spectacular views of the river and the city, loosely modelled after San Francisco's Cliff House.

The other son, Miloš, was also inspired by California, though more by its dream entrepreneurs than by its developers. On the vacant land next to his brother's property development, he built one of the largest film studios on the continent, becoming one of the founders of the Czech film industry. The semblance to the Hollywood Hills was so striking that one half-expected there to be a big sign perched up on the hill for everybody to see from near and far. And indeed, there has been a five-metre-long steel memorial plaque with the name 'Barrande', the French palaeontologist after whom the rock is named, visible from across the river since 1884, preceding the Hollywood sign by forty years and raising questions about the original inspiration.

The brothers were close, but markedly different. Václav Maria was a serious, no-nonsense, solid family man, a paragon of bourgeois virtues, including a mistress or two kept discreetly out of sight. In his business dealings he was motivated not so much by the 'capitalist longing for profit ... but enterprise, pure and simple – the will to create something'. He was a pillar of society, a Rotarian, Freemason and member of assorted other clubs and associations, an enlightened patriot, who brought up his sons in 'the intellectual atmosphere of Masarykian humanism', politically connected though not politically active, a cultured man, friend to important Czech writers and journalists, with a sizeable library of his own, a good husband to his wife and a 'wonderful, kind' father to his two sons. He was also a genuinely decent and modest man, as is evident from the way he treated his subordinates, and even more from the quiet and dignified manner in which he coped with adversity and social exclusion during the last thirty years of his life.


Excerpted from "Havel"
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Copyright © 2014 Michael Zantovsky.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
18 December 2011, A Dark Cold Day,
Born with a Silver Spoon,
Portrait of the Artist as a Very Young Man,
The Silver Wind,
Good Soldier Havel,
The Apprentice,
The Garden Party,
The Sixties,
A Private School of Politics,
The Memorandum,
The Gathering Storm,
Scoundrel Times,
Mountain Hotel,
Roll Out the Barrels,
The Beggar's Opera,
It's Only Rock 'n' Roll,
The Charter,
The Mistake,
The Greengrocer Revolt,
The Empire Strikes Back,
The Trial,
Dear Olga,
Free at Last,
The Praise of Folly,
The Battle for Wenceslas Square,
Photo Insert,
That Velvet Thing,
The Fog of Revolution,
The Road to the Castle,
The Bag of Fleas,
The President of Rock 'n' Roll,
First We Take Manhattan,
Then We'll Take The Kremlin,
The Innocents Abroad,
Making the Fish,
The End of Czechoslovakia,
Waiting as a State of Hope,
The Bonfire of Scruples,
In Search of Allies,
Back to Europe,
The Yin and the Yang,
Between Life and Death,
The Ugly Mood,
Farewell to Arms,
Select Bibliography,
About the Author,

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