MIDWAY: Havel’s haul

When Vaclav Havel first entered Prague Castle after becoming president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he and his team found wires and concealed microphones everywhere, and a map revealing secret rooms. It was “an enchanted Kafkaesque castle” and, as he reveals in this candid memoir, his time there frequently struck him as absurd.

What he most remembers from those heady, almost hysterical early days is that “we laughed a lot, though I can hardly remember what we laughed at or why”.

Yet the laughter soon died away, and this is primarily a book about disillusionment. When Havel went from being a dissident to a president, “the arc of my story was completed in a way that was almost like a fairytale”, he notes, adding that it was a narrative that played especially well in the west, where he assumed an almost legendary status. Back home, however, the fairytale swiftly came to an end — and it was not a happy ending.

Havel had a country to run and he fell back to earth with a bump. In this book he attempts to answer his critics and to address his “murky legacy”. Why didn’t he root out communists from the government and make a clean break with the old regime? Why did it take a month to disband the secret police? The criticisms piled up, and at one point he even had business cards printed that read “Vaclav Havel, Author of Many Mistakes and Errors”.

As a playwright, he understood the theatrical nature of politics. All politicians must have “an elementary dramatic instinct”, he writes. But a major theme in this book is how often this desire for structure and order is thwarted by events. After becoming president, Havel churned

out a speech a week for almost 15 years, and this gruelling schedule snuffed out any remaining creative spark. “Perhaps it’s because of all this hard labour that I now find writing so difficult,” he observes.

In 2005 he mentions a play he wants to finish, about a statesman who loses his position but cannot bear to leave his official residence. It would contain echoes of King Lear, The Cherry Orchard, Endgame. “Having thought about it for so long, I’ll never get it written,” he complains. Happily, we know that he did overcome his writer’s block.