The social memory of small countries is punctuated by dates which recall national defeats. When the students of Prague assembled in the late afternoon of Friday 17 November 1989 in the city’s main thorough-fare, the Narodni Street, the purpose of their officially-sanctioned demonstration was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of one of their comrades, Jan Opletal, murdered by the Germans on 17 November 1939; at the same time they were remembering the death of Jan Palach, the student who, on 16 January 1969, burned himself to death at the foot of the statue of the country’s patron saint, the good King Wenceslas, in protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Soviet Union and three other countries of the Communist bloc. Now, for the first time in twenty years, ‘the grown-ups’ were taking the students and actors who joined them seriously: ‘our children shamed us into action.’ By 9 p.m. a crowd of some fifty thousand people were moving towards Wenceslas Square. The violence which the police (white helmets, riot shields and truncheons) used to disperse the crowd led to some broken limbs and numerous concussions, but there were no deaths. This is how Czechoslovakia’s ‘kind of peaceable revolution’ began, and it was over, without any further violence, 24 days later. It was not, to begin with, a nationwide uprising. Both television and radio were slow to give up-to-date news; people had to rely on West German stations and on Radio Freedom in Munich. In the provinces they suspected that these were the cavortings of a few crackpot intellectuals in Prague, most of whom had been in gaol anyway.

Vaclav Havel was not in the city when the levée en masse started: he was staying in northern Bohemia, at his country cottage called ‘Hradecek’ – ‘Little Castle’. On his return to Prague (probably on Saturday morning) he took charge of events from his headquarters in the basement dressing-room of the Laterna Magica Theatre. His leadership seems never to have been in dispute. Though the extent of the popular support for the students took him by surprise, he instantly made their cause his own. His next, decisive step was to call for a two-hour general strike for Monday 27 November. The call-out, which included the critical section of the population, the workers in heavy industry and in the mines, was a complete success. By a strange coincidence, the city happened to be full of people from the countryside who had come to celebrate the canonisation a week earlier, in Rome, of Princess Agnes (1205-1282), the daughter of yet another King Wenceslas. (An old lady whose house lies on the steep way to St Vitus’s Cathedral put a notice in her window: ‘Pilgrims are welcome to a night’s lodging, but I have only two beds, two eiderdowns and four blankets.’) This is the first Czech uprising fully supported by the Catholic Church – a year earlier a petition for religious freedom drawn up by Augustin Navratil, a dispossessed Moravian farmer, and endorsed by the 90-year-old Frantisek Cardinal Tomasek, was signed by half a million people – and an hour after his election as President of the Republic, on 29 December, Havel, no longer in his habitual jeans and pullover but in a neat three-piece suit, attended mass celebrated by the Cardinal in the Cathedral. In a little over a month he had moved from the Little Castle to the big one overlooking the city – z Hradecku ... na Hrad.

The Czechs are a cautious people who have taken a long time to emerge from the traumas of national defeat. Few of them have been ready to face the fact that, to one side of the Munich betrayal of 1938 by the French (and less directly the British), the Czechoslovak Government’s acceptance of the ‘Diktat’ meant a collapse of everything the country had stood for through twenty years of democratic freedom and self-determination. Munich represented the generals’ readiness to surrender a highly-equipped modern army on the first occasion when that army was called upon to fight; it represented a total collapse of what Havel, among the few who saw the past undistorted by apologies and lies, has called ‘the spurious realism’ of Edvard Benes, the President who, though not consulted, accepted the terms of the surrender. The demoralisation which followed the defeat and the harshness and untold humiliations of the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia (Slovakia chose to become an ‘ally’ of the Germans) explain at least in part the next spiritual defeat – the vengeful fury unleashed by the Czechs on the Sudeten German population after May 1945 as the Benes Government looked the other way. And they also explain the lack of any effective democratic resistance to the Communist putsch of 1948, and the failure of the Prague Spring of 1968. Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk has often been praised for his resilience and cunning, and his ability to survive under adverse conditions: but in November 1989 the Czechs succeeded (and the Slovaks took their cue from them) precisely because they did not behave like the Good Soldier but chanced their arm, because they behaved like Vaclav Havel.

Moreover, the Czechs were willing to follow the example of their three neighbours, Poland, Hungary and East Germany: to learn from them the lesson that the Soviet Union under Gorbachev was in no mood and in no position to turn Wenceslas Square into Tiananmen Square. That may seem obvious, but Czechoslovakia has had bitter territorial quarrels with all three countries since the peace settlements of Versailles and St Germain, and its relations with them went from bad to worse when all three sent their military forces to take part in the occupation that followed the Prague Spring. For Czechoslovakia with its respectable democratic past to be willing to follow on the road to democracy countries with very different political records suggests a community of political spirit unprecedented in the annals of Central Europe. The self-liberation would not have happened, however, had there not been students and actors who formed its spearhead – enough people with the courage, perseverance and imprudence of Vaclav Havel. It would be nice to be able to say that in his utter decency, good humour and honesty Havel is ‘a true representative of the Czech people’. So he is. But in all representation there is an element of fiction – a fiction which, in the event, encouraged the nation to rise to the moral demands of a charismatic maker of fictions.

Vaclav Havel was born into a bourgeois family in 1936, the year that Tomas Garrigue Masaryk died, and two years before the death of TGM’s creation, the First Czechoslovak Republic. Havel’s grandfather, an enterprising builder, came to Prague from the Moravian town where Havel’s friend Tom Stoppard was born; his father, a civil engineer turned architect and speculative builder, got into debt by putting up one of Prague’s prettiest residential suburbs above the River Vitava, and even after the Communist takeover he was popular enough with his workforce to retain a managerial job in the theatre and leisure complex he had built in the city. The cossetted ‘master’s son’ grew up, first in Prague, then in Moravia, with a feeling of undeserved privilege: ‘It may seem paradoxical,’ he writes in one of his letters from prison to his wife Olga, ‘but I think that because of those early experiences I have always had a heightened sensitivity and aversion towards the various manifestations of social inequality, and to privilege in general.’ * This, together with his chubbiness (‘I was just a well-fed piglet’), gave him a feeling of ‘being a bit outside the order of things’, which in turn made him prey to uncertainties about his place in the world, to the fear that there might be a fatal flaw in his character which justified his exclusion from the company of his less privileged schoolmates. But at the point where this self-portrait looks like becoming pure Oblomov, the ‘Czech’ element in his character prevails: his ‘oddness’ (he adds) is not only the source of his self-doubt, but also ‘a lifelong wellspring of energies directed at continually improving my self-definition ... it is also a decisive force behind everything worthwhile I have ever managed to accomplish.’ After forty years spent in the shadow of ‘isms’ – called now ‘Communism’ or ‘Marxism’, then ‘socialism with a human face’ or realny socialismus – he acknowledges in himself ‘that traditional quality of the bourgeoisie, especially in the era of liberalism, which is the ability to take risks, the courage to start all over again from nothing, the ever vital hope and élan to begin new enterprises’.

Because of his family’s ‘political profile’, ‘the millionaire’s son’s’ formal schooling ended abruptly when he was 15. For the next four years he attended evening classes while working as a technician in a chemistry lab; in 1955 he published his first articles and appeared for the first time as a public speaker at a government-sponsored young writers’ club. His applications for a place at the University and on a film course were turned down; called up for military service, he was not allowed to finish an economics degree at the Technical High School, but in the army he wrote together with a friend a satirical play, The Life before Us. In 1959 he was taken on as a stagehand by Jan Werich, by then the Grand Old Man of the Czech theatre. When Werich died in October 1980, ‘an isolated, sad, bitter and disaffected man, without faith and hope’, Havel wrote to his wife that he owed to him his first practical experience of what the theatre as a socially and politically conscious institution could mean for the national life; Werich’s death ‘was the definitive end of an era in Czech intellectual history’.

From the early 19th century onwards, the small popular theatres in Prague and in the provinces expressed the patriotic aspirations of the Czech people; in these theatres (often with amateur casts) the Czech language was cultivated in defiance of Austrian censorship – national pride and its historic roots were asserted in opposition to the Hapsburg rule. By 1927, when Werich, together with his partner Jan Voskovec, took over the Liberated Theatre, the patriotic themes could be guyed and replaced by a mildly left-wing, anarchic form of humour: V+W’s energy and talent created what was probably the most influential and certainly the most popular of the many small theatres of the First Republic. They wrote, directed and staged their musical revues, acting the main parts as chalk-faced surrealist pierrots, with Voskovec as the romantic, occasionally melancholy Don Quixote and Werich as Sancho Panza, romping through closely-rhymed, topical sketches and songs. All this came to an end in 1938, by decree not of the Germans but of their own government. After the war the V+W collaborative enterprise never made a real comeback, though their lyrics, set to superb jazz music by their own composer, Jaroslav Jezek, are alive in Prague to this day. Through Werich, Havel caught a glimpse of the ribald end of the intellectual life of the First Republic, and a little of this heritage remained alive in his plays throughout the long years of single-party rule.

Government during those years was far from monolithic: conditions were determined by Soviet pressure, Western homiletics and dissident protests – the only stable factor being the dreariness of everything affected by the pervasive ideology of back-scratching. Havel joined neither the Communists nor any other party. He remained his own man, yet he did so without retiring into privacy; unlike many of the best writers around him, he never seriously contemplated emigrating. In 1969 he joined the Theatre on the Balustrade, initially as a stagehand. For that minuscule theatre and its sixty serried, faithful spectators he wrote his first plays, beginning with The Garden Party (1963), which remains one of his best works. He soon acquired a reputation for speaking out on behalf of the anti-ideological view ‘from below’, in opposition to those who see the world ‘from the balcony of official ideology’. In Olga Splichalova, whom he married in 1964, he has found intelligent criticism and courageous support for his views, and much practical help in the theatre. In March 1968 – the Dubcek era had just begun – he was elected chairman of a Circle of Independent Writers within the official writers’ union, and from that time onward ‘the theme of opposition’ (the title of his first major essay of April 1968) has dominated his thinking. He seems to have been active in every group that protested against the violation of justice, appealing at all times to the country’s own constitution and, after December 1977, to the Helsinki Agreement. In May-June 1968 he spent some weeks in the West, visiting a large number of émigré writers; he returned to Prague at the height of the Dubcek crisis. In a long interview he gave in 1985 he speaks with singular accuracy and lack of illusion about the mood and the attitudes that led to the ignominious ending of the Prague Spring: this understanding informs his work as a dissident and its culmination in the uprising of November 1989. During the first week of the Soviet invasion (21-27 August 1968) he contributed daily commentaries to the Free Radio broadcasts from northern Bohemia, and a year later was charged with ‘subversion of the Republic’. Now begin his ‘prohibited years’.

The judges who were obliged to try him were as conscious of the ludicrous nature of the charges against him as they were anxious to acquit him without inflicting too much loss of face on their political masters – as Havel with great courtesy pointed out to them. Among the major tragi-comical episodes of this period was the trial in 1976 of a pop group called the Plastic People of the Universe, whose crime consisted in being a part of the illegal musical underground. (One of them, a young Canadian called Paul Wilson, who had come to Prague to teach English, is the translator of Letters to Olga.) Together with the philosopher Jan Patocka and Jiri Hajek, Foreign Minister in Dubcek’s cabinet, Havel was arrested in January 1977, after founding Charter 77, the group whose members formed the core of the opposition in the years leading to the uprising. In March 1978 he submitted a letter asking for the abolition of the death penalty; and in April of that year he was arrested as one of the founders of VONS, the Committee in Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted (life of sorts imitating art: this identification of Inauguration with Liquidation is anticipated in The Garden Party).

Among the qualities Havel shares with Gandhi are an occasionally mischievous delight in telling the truth and a fascination with the law. Whenever he appeared in court he was defended by counsel, often with some skill, yet he took great pains to acquaint himself with the legalities of the indictment; and some of the best and most closely-argued writings of this well-organised playwright are the texts of the speeches he made in court. His bourgeois good manners were not the least effective of his weapons: ‘Beware,’ wrote his friend, the late Heinrich Böll, ‘here speaks a rebel, one of the dangerous kind, the gentle and courteous kind.’ He rarely used invective. ‘The Trial’, a feuilleton addressed to the chief, prosecutor, contains a passage aimed, characteristically, not at the court but at the jem’en-foutisme of those who didn’t care about what was happening in the courtroom. On his way from the Plastic People trial he meets a friend, a film director, and tells him where he has been. Were they up on a drug charge, the director asks. No, Havel replies, ‘no drugs were involved, and then I tried to explain what the trial was about. When I finished he shook his head and asked: “Well, and what else is happening?” Perhaps I am doing him an injustice, but at that moment I was seized by a feeling that this dear man belonged to a world with which I wish to have nothing in common ever again, a world – now listen carefully, Mr Prosecutor Kovarik, what’s coming is a vulgarism! – of cocked-up life.’

Havel spent altogether almost six years in gaol, two of them doing hard labour, several months in solitary confinement. He was never tortured or under threat of execution, but especially during his first imprisonment in 1977 he lived under great psychic pressure. His resilience and self-discipline were remarkable. At first he thought life in gaol would provide him with copy for his plays, but he soon found that preserving his own equanimity and making the best of things for those around him took most of his time. Two of his friends were in the same gaol and occasionally they were able to talk to each other, but his daily contacts were with criminals and ‘asocial elements’. He and Jiri Dienstbier (now Foreign Minister in Havel’s cabinet) were given a week in solitary for helping an illiterate Gypsy to write a letter home. For three years his wife’s and brother’s letters and their visits – one hour every four months – were his only contact with the outside world. Instead of falling prey to self-pity, he came to see his situation as a challenge to do what none of the characters in his plays succeeds in doing – making his condition meaningful to himself, and helping others to do the same.

This is what the letters he wrote to his wife between June 1979 and September 1982 are about. He was allowed one letter a week, ‘strictly confined to family affairs’, its exact form prescribed: four pages, no underlinings or deletions, no descriptions of conditions in gaol, no foreign words or quotation marks and no jokes (punishment is a serious matter!). Couched in an abstract and occasionally abstruse language (‘If for instance I wanted to say “regime”, I would have to write “the socially manifest focus of non-self” or some such rubbish’), these letters are ‘a cry for fidelity and constancy’ – his attempts ‘to prevent a breakdown of [my] identity and continuity.’

As a boy of 16 Havel discovered for himself the banned writings of Jan Patocka, a disciple and friend of Edmund Husserl and a student of Heidegger. It was in December 1976 that Patocka joined Havel and Jiri Hajek in founding Charter 77, which they saw as ‘an association of real social tolerance, not merely an agreement for the exclusion of others’. Havel’s last meeting with Patocka in Ruzyne prison while they were waiting to be cross-examined provides the theme of one of his most moving essays: two months later, after further interrogations, Patocka died of a stroke. Patocka conceived of a human identity as constituted by ‘a responsibility that is ours, at all times and everywhere’, which, like the world, surrounds us with an ‘absolute horizon’, and whose only real test is in adversity: this is perhaps the main concept Havel takes from his Socratic mentor.

Havel disclaims all authority as a philosopher: his speculations are no more than ‘the testimony of one man in a particular situation, his inner murmurings’. Yet he is irresistibly drawn to the philosophical reflections that came his way in Patocka’s ‘unofficial seminars’. He is trying to discover why a visit from his brother and wife didn’t go well. Each visit has its own special atmosphere (he writes), made up of the three people’s moods, the events that came before and after the visit, their ‘individual wills’ and their ‘collective will’. But all this is merely a ‘physical preamble’ to a ‘higher order’, an order determined by a ‘collective spirit’ with its own identity, integrity, continuity and mood. And this ‘order of spirit’ in turn is part of a higher order still, ‘an order of Being’, which transcends ‘epochs, cultures, civilisations’. ‘Every work of the spirit,’ he continues, ‘is a small re-enactment of the miracle of Being, a small recreation of the world,’ and this is especially true of those two spheres of collectivity that are peculiarly his own, the theatre and politics. Nor is any work of the spirit ever wholly lost – each is registered for ever in the memory of Being; so that every political act, grounded as it is in responsibility acknowledged or denied, is, like every artistic creation, registered in the spiritual experience of mankind as well as in the totality of Being of which mankind is a part. And though he adds, ‘Our lives are known about,’ he is reluctant to call on a religious authority in support of that claim – his liberality of outlook allows him to recognise that most of his friends don’t share ‘the metaphysics’ of that conviction.

The greatest challenge to his search for meaning doesn’t come from the powers-that-be, that increasingly absurd amalgam of Moscow, the Party and its police, and the Army. It comes from his friends, who wonder whether his suffering (though he never calls it that) is worthwhile, whether he would not be better advised to give in, to renege on his beliefs. Embarrassed by the publicity his imprisonment has aroused in the West, ‘the regime’ (in effect the President, Husak) is eagerly looking for the least damaging way of releasing him. Would he like to go to America ‘on a course of study’, they ask. The slightest sign of recantation on his part will do the trick, and they almost succeed. On 25 July 1982, in one of the last letters to his wife from his third and longest period in gaol, he comments unsparingly on an appeal for remission which he had written during his first imprisonment:

Of course, I knew that whether or not I’d be released would be decided by things which had nothing to do with whether or not I wrote the appropriate request. Well – the interrogation was getting nowhere, and it seemed proper to use the opportunity and let myself be heard. I wrote my request in a way that at the time seemed very tactical and cunning: while saying nothing that I didn’t think or that wasn’t true, I simply ‘overlooked’ the fact that truth lies not only in what is said but also in who says it, and to whom, why and how and under what circumstances it is expressed. Thanks to this minor ‘oversight’ (more accurately: this minor self-deception), what I said came – as it were by chance – dangerously close to what the addressee wanted to hear. What was particularly absurd was my motive in this manoeuvre, at least my conscious and admitted motive. It was not the hope that it would lead to anything, but merely a kind of professionally intellectual and somewhat perverse delight in what I thought of as my ‘honourable cleverness’. (To complete the picture I should add that, when I re-read it some years later, the ‘honour’ in that cleverness made my hair stand on end.)

This episode, and his understanding of it as an act of betrayal, forms one of the fundamental experiences of Havel’s life. It is incorporated in at least two of his plays, Largo Desolato (1985) and the Faust play, Temptation (1986). But his self-understanding is also relevant to his ‘political tactics’. It is the source of his tolerance – unique among Central European intellectuals – towards those who have succumbed to such temptations; and this tolerance (so different from the attitude even of the ‘reformists’ of East Germany) will in due course be recognised by ‘the People’ as legitimating his authority to lead them. From its very beginning, Charter 77 insisted that, as Professor Patocka put it with unwonted succinctness, ‘this is not a battle, this is a war!’ The Chartists’ aim was not single demos and isolated actions, but the continuous, unrelenting work of enlightening people about their rights and duties; and from this enlightenment nobody is to be excluded.

This is Havel’s Post-Modernism: in an age governed by manichean politics, he refuses to accept the ideology of ‘them and us’, to accede to the Western view that the country is divided into dissidents (people concerned to secure freedom primarily for themselves) and the rest of the population who are waiting to see how things will turn out for the dissidents before venturing out into the streets – those streets of Prague ‘in which on a Saturday night’ the only people you met were ‘five secret policemen, five illegal currency dealers and three drunks’. (The rest of the population sat at home, watching television.)

Here is the element of fiction I mentioned earlier: Havel has no illusions about how things are, yet he acts and writes (for instance, in his letter of May 1975, addressed to ‘Dear Dr Husak’) as though the public were waiting to be won over to the side of justice and freedom. Emphasising the film of lies that has covered Czech life through four decades, he doesn’t play the moral simpleton. On the other hand, his quiet, unhysterical indictment is founded on the belief that people who lie can be made to recognise and speak the truth. There was a week in August 1968 when he took part in active resistance against the invasion in one of the few towns that stood out and for a while at least remained unoccupied. It taught him that ‘we never know what possibilities are dormant in the soul of the populace. A whole nation, acting out Svejkian tactics at one moment, can bravely oppose a foreign power a year later.’ He doesn’t delude himself into thinking that there aren’t worse crimes than lies, or that diehard ideologists and power-seekers can be turned into liberal democrats. But all the rest, including the trimmers and the Vicars of Bray, can be reclaimed for the common weal. This belief is his strength; and one’s fervent hope is that a situation will not arise in which the belief turns out to be his weakness.

This is a philosophy in which ‘the lightness of Being’ is anything but ‘unbearable’. On the contrary, it is the heavy, blood-stained theory behind Marxist revolutionary politics which is shown up for the self-seeking farce it really was (and in some parts of the world still is). When the invasion of 1968 was completed and Husak’s tough new regime installed, the protesting writers met for a last time and decided to publish ‘a sort of solemn testament addressed to the nation’. Havel was chosen to draft it; and a tiny room was found for him at the Film Club, where he set to work. Unfortunately at that very moment he was meant to open a painter friend’s exhibition –

not with a serious address, you know, but just with some verses and songs. It was my friend’s dadaist wish because he loved my out-of-tune singing of patriotic songs and my heartfelt recitation of our national classics ... and, believe it or not, I actually managed to do both: pretending I had to go to the lavatory, I fled from the room where I was composing the historic manifesto of Czech artists, got to the exhibition, did my songs and recitation in front of a shocked public, instantly dashed back to the Film Club and managed to write the last paragraph ... Don’t you think it’s characteristic that in this country the gloomy historic events which are our lot and which we try to stand up to honourably, at a price of sacrifices others find hard to understand, are organically linked with our traditional irony and self-irony, with our sense for the absurd, or with a sense of humour that looks for no purpose outside itself or, contrariwise, our black humour?

The playwright Vaclav Havel provides some of these links.

‘What’s happened?’ Co se stalo? Time and again, a play by Havel, or the peripateia of a scene, is introduced by that question. It marks the moment when the life of an individual or of a family has been disrupted by an ukase from above, an order that is pointless yet unignorable. And even though what happens hardly ever takes the form of what has been expected, from that moment on everything is senselessly different. The secret police are expected, and instead friends come, or a couple of political sympathisers, and their importunate arrival brings with it disruptions which seem worse than any havoc the police may wreak (Largo Desolato). In The Garden Party a friend who is well in with the authorities and has promised to fix things for the son of the family is expected but doesn’t come. Instead, his secretary arrives, reading out a series of telegrams interlarded with her plans for a weekend excursion: eventually the son, Hugo, turns up, but now that he has got the job the family friend promised (having meanwhile ousted the family friend from his place in the nomenklatura), the father thinks he will be too grand to talk to them – and indeed, Hugo is so grand that he isn’t their son any more but someone quite different. The job Hugo has secured in the Inauguration Service involves him in the ceremonial opening of the Department of Liquidation – and its first job is to liquidate the Inauguration Service, while its next job is to liquidate itself, all under Hugo’s direction. ‘How suicidal our happiness can be!’ says Kafka’s official at the end of The Castle, the Inaugurator about to liquidate the case against K.

Life in this society is governed by the back-scratching ideology I have mentioned, the simplest version of which is shown in The Audience (1975). The play was occasioned by Havel’s own time as an unskilled labourer in a provincial brewery. The working-class Head Maltster will help Vanek (the playwright doing his punitive stint in the brewery) to secure a cushy job in the despatch office, in return for which Vanek will help the Maltster to write the weekly report on his (Vanek’s) doings, by means of which the Maltster will placate his friend, Tonda Masek, who stood by him when he was about to be tried for theft, while Masek needs the report to keep the authorities sweet because ... Alas, this perfect mechanism fails to work because Vanek won’t cooperate, because he has ‘principles’. This is the cue for the Maltster’s Great Speech, and in the whole of Bertolt Brecht’s work there is nothing like it. Here speaks the anger and pain of the working man who feels himself condemned to perpetual inferiority by his lack of education, and by his very language. He must do without the intellectual’s la-di-da words, but even so he knows how to ram home his point:

Now you wouldn’t mind my getting you a warm spot in the storeroom, would you – but when it comes to taking on a bit of this muck I have to wade in every day – no sir! You’re all very clever, you’ve got it all figured out, haven’t you, you really know how to take care of your own lot! Principles! Of course you’ve got to protect them, those principles of yours – because you know how to cash in on them, because you’re sure to get a good price for them, they’re your bread and butter, those principles – but what about me? ... Nobody’s ever going to look after me, nobody’s afraid of me, nobody’s going to write about me ... You’ll go back to your actresses one day – you’re going to show off to them about how you rolled out the barrels – you’ll be a hero – but what about me? What do you think I’ve got to go back to? Who’s ever going to appreciate what I’ve done? What have I got out of life? What’s in store for me?

It’s a speech to tear a hole in the motley, yet no sooner has it been delivered than it is drowned in a crate of lager and forgotten – and the play may begin all over again.

In The Conspirators (1971), Havel’s only dramatic reference to anti-semitism and the Slansky trials of 1952, it’s not a cushy job in the warm storeroom that is at stake but the fate of a nation. When the conspirators meet (one of them, the Attorney General, is named after the man who prosecuted Havel), each of the four men hopes he will lead the nation in the coming revolution. The woman (who is or has been the mistress of three of them) encourages each in turn; then each pretends that he thinks one of the others is better qualified for the great task. Again the caballing leads nowhere: it is as though it had never been, and the play ends where it began.

The humour is the humour of disappointed expectation, where the expectation is of something nobody believes in. ‘Ptydepe’, the artificial language constructed on the principle of maximum redundancy, which is the subject of The Memorandum (1966), doesn’t work, not only because it is absurdly cumbersome, but also because, however idiotically abstract its words, they are bound to acquire emotive connotations and contextual undertones, just like any ‘unscientific’ ordinary language. So the ukase which made Ptydepe the compulsory medium of inter-departmental communication is revoked, and everybody who was involved in its teaching is discredited and demoted. But no sooner does this happen than Chorukor, another artificial language, constructed on the opposite principle of minimal redundancy, is introduced. Why? As an assertion of bureaucratic power? But whose power?

The mechanism at work here is of course ‘the Party’, which (a little like the powers that are said to be at work in The Castle) is everywhere and nowhere, and the metamorphosis that goes with power is total: the office boy who becomes the director of a nationalised enterprise assumes the outlook and the jargon of the director he has displaced. But unlike the powers ascribed to the bureaucrats of Kafka’s Castle, this power isn’t in the least mysterious: instead it is negotiable, and most of the characters know it to be so. The mimesis of these tragi-comedies is perfect: the ‘Party’, and other self-propelling, self-purposive constructs like it, represents the most convenient because the most readily available form of social entropy or (to use Havel’s own simpler term), of ‘the world of cocked-up life’. As to the relevance of this entropic construct to our own national and multinational institutions, the spectator or reader is left to draw his own conclusions.

In some ways these characters resemble the figures of bar football; they all look alike, but if you get close you will see that they are all a little different, each knocked about and damaged in a different place. Nobody is wholly truthful, though almost everybody has a moment of weakness which is his or her moment of truth. Time and again one of these figures delivers the Great Speech which is meant to sum it all up. And as often as not these speeches turn out to be replicas of the weighty pronouncements of the Great Socialist Panjandrums, the Marxes and Engelses, the Blochs and Lukacses, full of veiled threats and abstract promises, signifying very little. Is there then nothing that is to be taken seriously? Sex? When not in the service of distraction or of professional advancement, it leads to disappointment or disaster. True community? The only place where you can find it is in the queue outside the office canteen, whose theme of discourse ranges from roast goose to gulash.

As Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz has shown in her splendid study, The Silenced Theatre, Havel has kept company with a whole bevy of playwrights with similar aims and similar dramatic resources. What is original about his plays is the single-mindedness with which he places all human relations within socio-political brackets: outside these brackets there is a sign saying ‘Beware farce!’ and around that sign there is another set of brackets and another sign that says ‘This is serious, because, though it shouldn’t be, this is how life passes.’ But as you read that last sentence, it grows more faint, until it becomes (to use a word for which Havel has a special penchant) ‘metaphysical’. Cheerfulness is always breaking in: absurdity is an absence of meaning which, in his theatre, is ‘inseparable from the experience of meaning’. And the only way to escape those brackets is to escape life; though that happens only once, in Havel’s latest play, Restoration (1988), in the Oblomov figure who takes his own life.

What does the future hold? Will the good-tempered new life last? Havel’s relative lack of a historical background may limit him as a playwright, but in the context of the country’s social memory it is a blessing in disguise. The ‘small country syndrome’ has led Czechs and Slovaks more than once into deep unhappiness, into an abrogation of the communal spirit, fear inviting oppression, oppression inviting revenge. Public misery and withdrawal into timid privacy have been the hallmarks of their history throughout much of the last four centuries. Can a country free itself from its traumatic past by a single act of self-liberation? There is no law of history that condemns a people to perpetual darkness. The destruction of the First Republic caused the national memory to forget the grave mistakes which preceded that destruction: the long nightmare of Communism created the fiction of an unblemished democracy. Yet the image of a decent democracy in a region unpropitious to such things wasn’t all PR: enough of TGM’s democratic heritage surives for the new republic to build on, and its beginnings are encouraging enough. On his first visit abroad President Havel went to both parts of Germany, and he wasn’t exactly courting popularity when, in the course of that visit, he announced the formation of a commission of enquiry into the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans; this was an act of great political skill, but more than that it reflects generosity and self-assurance. Together with complete and partial amnesties for all prisoners except murderers and rapists, the proposal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, an invitation to the Pope to visit the country, an invitation to Presidents Bush and Gorbachev to a summit meeting in Prague, another invitation to Frank Zappa to make a film in Prague (presumably in the Barrandov studios in the suburb Havel’s father built), and plans for a sort of Central European summit meeting with the Hungarians and the Poles in Bratislava, the Slovak capital – it’s not a bad record for a presidency in its first flush. A single man, however charismatic, cannot ensure that the decencies of a single moment will be perpetuated into an era. Still, a single man, helped by his fiction, can do a lot.

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Vol. 12 No. 6 · 22 March 1990

I hope you will allow me to dissociate myself from the editorial policy which led you to suppress all diacritic marks on the Czech and Slovak names mentioned in my article on ‘Havel’s Castle’ (LRB, 22 February). As far as I know, only German ultra-nationalists have gone in for this practice.

J.P. Stern

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