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Velvet Revolution Overthrew the Communist Regime


Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident leader and president, compares his life to a fairytale. The title of his memoirs refers to Prague Castle, one of the oldest seats of government in Europe and the place into which Havel was propelled by the Velvet Revolution which overthrew the communist regime in former Czechoslovakia in 1989. Much to his astonishment, Havel remained in the castle for 14 years, first as president of Czechoslovakia and, after the country split peacefully into the Slovak and Czech Republics, as president of the latter until he stepped down in 2003.

Havel, born into a wealthy family, was persecuted for his bourgeois background after the communists snatched power in 1948. He was already internationally recognised for his prose and plays when Soviet troops suppressed Czecholsovakia's attempt to slip away from Moscow after the "Prague Spring" of 1968. Havel became a prominent member of the Charter 77 opposition movement and was imprisoned for five years.

He brings to bear his craft as a playwright in this most unconventional of political memoirs, which assembles material from three sources. One part consists of answers to written questions by Czech journalist Karel Hvizdala. Another portion is Havel's reflections on his presidency and on life while on an extended US stay in 2005. The third features sometimes bizarre excerpts from thousands of memos, instructions and speeches stored during his presidency in his computer.

Havel, a modest man, is always wracked by self-doubts about his abilities. He accepted the presidency only because he believed refusing it could have jeopardised the still-precarious democratic project. His informal manner, revelling in an artsy milieu of theatre folk and rock musicians, veils a love of order that he describes as "almost pedantic". He is conscious that he is inventing the template for democratic rule while dismantling the paraphernalia and habits of tyranny. He applies a playwright's discipline so that his speeches, whether on foreign relations, Nato entry or domestic policies, mesh together to form a unified idea for the emerging society, like the development of plot in a play.

Initially, the presidency was chaotic learning-on-the-job: "we had no entr'acte of perestroika... but we started directly, after a few days of revolution, to build a normal democratic society". His playwright's attention to detail prompts involvement in plans to refurbish the castle to make a fitting impression on foreign guests, design the uniform for the guards, and instructions on how to entertain official guests. He occasionally even re-arranges the cutlery on banquet tables.

The book reflects Havel's sense of wonder at what has happened to him as he is transformed from dissident leader to president. He values his relationships with figures such as the Clintons and Bushes, father and son. The former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, herself of Czech origin, becomes a mentor.

Havel's own strong spirituality surfaces in his relationships with Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama. By nature, he admits he is non-confrontational and chides himself for not reacting more robustly to those who attack him. But he is no peacenik. He supported bombing Serbia as early as 1994, and the 2003 Iraq invasion, although he has since changed his stance. Havel regards as one of his most important achievements helping to dissolve the Warsaw Pact. He continues to fight for human rights in Burma, Belarus and Cuba.

Some questions, such as those about unfaithfulness to his late first wife, reveal prosaic human flaws. Havel is aware of his shortcomings, troubled by guilt, but not seeking excuses. Just as absurdity figures in his plays, Havel describes its ambushes while president. In the US, politically correct health-consciousness and security precautions plunge him into "truly Kunderian" situations. In the Castle, he is perplexed by his computer's frequently inexplicable actions – and by what to do about a bat living in the vacuum-cleaner closet.

Most of the first post-communist leaders were communists who rebranded themselves to retain power, usually characterised by corruption. Havel's integrity was not corroded by exposure to high office. His connections to political and spiritual leaders, human-rights activists and the artistic community enabled his country to punch far above its weight. Here, he masterfully uses the techniques of drama to create the effect of entering an intimate theatre, where Havel strides across the stage in the role of president. It is not a complete biography of this remarkable man, but it is a show well worth visiting.


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