Playwright as political protagonist

Vaclav Havel
March 31, 2000

Ten years ago, for the second time in its brief history, a distinguished thinker and man of letters became president of the Czechoslovak Republic. Václav Havel's accession was different from Tómas Masaryk's, resulting from ad hoc political intrigue and vast popular acclaim, but was similarly the outcome of world-transforming prior events.

John Keane's hugely long, detailed book is presumably intended to mark the Velvet revolution's tenth anniversary. It attempts, in part, to ground the Havel phenomenon (for such it is) in the country's recent and not-so-recent history. At the same time it offers itself as a dramatic, but also intimate, psycho-biography. It is far more successful in the first respect than in the second, where it is radically vitiated, and blinkered by what looks very like envy. (Not least, I should guess, of Havel's literary skill, which may account for Keane's occasional mannered excursions in "creative writing" mode.) Given that Havel was only three when the Germans invaded, the book scarcely needs to contain so much about the Nazi occupation and its immediate pre-history - similarly with the 1948 Communist coup and its aftermath, though admittedly Havel rose to political consciousness as early as 1952. Nevertheless, those parts of the book are the best, if only because Havel himself is not present. Everywhere else he is constantly goading his biographer into peevish homilies about mortality (Havel, who has lately been very ill, surely needs no such reminders), the fragility of power and the dangers of hubris. Keane's manner often suggests some sour Puritan divine ranting against the great ones of this world.

In fact, as his obiter dicta and his many speeches, writings and deeds in office testify, Havel has scrupulously, and for a charismatic politician almost uniquely, avoided hubris. Of course he has exploited his charisma, as he has his other great talents. But unlike Tony Blair, who offers an instructive contrast, Havel has done so for his country's advantage and has neither deliberately sought nor cultivated celebrity. How else than by deploying - or as Keane would have it, abusing - his theatrical skills could he have engineered the transition to a nascent liberal democracy in the absence of the appropriate political institutions and culture, and in the teeth of an unreformed pseudo-parliament (which Keane accuses him of undemocratically defying)?

For all its ups and downs, in the light of history and in comparison to most others, Havel's political career looks like a roaring success. I cannot see why Keane calls it a "tragedy". But suppose it were, then the author, a moaner who persistently tends to look on the dark side, would make the ideal chorus.

Up to a point, Keane is constrained simply by the facts, which he at least reproduces diligently, to share the world's admiration for Havel. Thereafter, however, he misses no opportunity to pull him down, resorting to innuendo, chat-show gossip, the insinuations of political enemies and disappointed rivals, and even to impertinent sexual speculation. It is of course true that in any modern, media-driven democracy, which is what the Czech Republic has become, political leaders get turned willy-nilly into celebrities and undergo the typical celebrity life cycle, from irrational adulation to an equally irrational detraction, but that is all the more reason for a genuine democrat, which Keane professes to be, not to follow the media's lead.

Actually Keane's documentation is sufficiently full to counter, by itself, most of his accusations, independently of any other knowledge of Havel one has. According to Keane, Havel's prison letters to his wife, despite containing little of a personal nature, were published as Letters to Olga to lend his public image a romantic aura. Yet Keane tells us that letters to close relatives were the only writing permitted to prisoners, and that each of Havel's to Olga was therefore, especially for a writer, "a tactic of elementary survival". If that does not explain their lack of intimacy, perhaps Havel's explanation, which Keane quotes, may be allowed to supplement it, to the effect that Olga is the letters' unstated heroine, their "absolute horizon", her love and loyalty being taken for granted.

Keane, a political scientist, considers himself a specialist in power. Unlike Foucault, he is not so paranoid as to find it everywhere. Nevertheless, Havel, being a great man, must automatically be assumed to be egocentrically addicted to his "monarchical" power. But, Keane goes on, Havel is also eager for his country to join the European Union, which would mean relinquishing it. Most people would say this simply shows that Havel is not as addicted to power as Keane claims, or at all, but for Keane it is merely another "tragic irony", or culpable contradiction, in his subject's life. (Yet another: Havel is lambasted one minute for being populist, the next for being "aloof".) Obsessional media interest in Havel's illness shows that, in medieval fashion, his "body" has become "royalised"; yet less than a page later we learn that, at that very time, during "crucial negotiations to effect Czech entry into Nato, his good health wasI a practical necessity". Why is that not sufficient to explain media interest?

Keane seems simultaneously drawn to and repelled by his subject. Though not without interest, this carping, resentful book tells us more about its author than about Havel. It summarises Havel's plays faithfully enough, but makes almost no, and certainly no systematic, reference to his politico-philosophical writings. Those constitute, to my mind, his almost complete vindication. They also reveal that Havel, in his liberal, non-partisan, undogmatic way, is a conservative. Could it be significant that Keane has in the past displayed strong left-wing sympathies?

Robert Grant is reader in English literature, University of Glasgow.


Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts

Author - John Keane
ISBN - 0 7475 4458 1
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £25.00
Pages - 505

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