Book Review: To the Castle and Back

To the Castle and Back
By Václav Havel
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007

In December 1989, when the Communist government was driven from power in Czechoslovakia, the crowds demonstrating in the squares of Prague chanted “Havel na Hrad!” or “Havel to the Castle!” They were calling for the playwright turned dissident Václav Havel to become president and take up residence in Prague Castle, their equivalent of the White House.

To the Castle and Back is Havel’s memoir of his time in The Castle. Havel served as the first post-Communist president of Czechoslovakia from December 1989 until July 1992, and after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, as the first president of the Czech Republic from January 1993 to February 2003.

As befits Havel, the book is not written as a conventional narrative. Instead, it is structured as a braid of three interwoven strands.

The main strand of the book is an interview with Karel Hvížďala, the same journalist who interviewed Havel for the book Disturbing the Peace (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990). As with Disturbing the Peace, Hvížďala provided Havel with a “mountain of questions”, this time covering his presidential career, more or less in chronological order. Havel’s answers form the core of book.

The first chapter essentially takes up where Disturbing the Peace left off, with Havel’s experience as a dissident politician in the period leading up to the Velvet Revolution. Chapter 2 covers the immediate post-revolutionary period and Havel’s early days in The Castle. Chapter 3 explores Havel’s term as president of Czechoslovakia, and chapter 4 continues with his presidency of the Czech Republic including his often strained relationships with various Czech prime ministers, especially his successor Václav Klaus. The fifth chapter looks at events in Havel’s personal life while he was President: the death of his first wife Olga, his subsequent marriage to Dagmar Veškrnová (the Daša to whom the book is dedicated); his near-death from pneumonia in November 1996, and the restitution of his family’s property which had been confiscated by the Communist government in 1948 and which included the Lucerna shopping and entertainment complex in downtown Prague. In Chapter 6 the book focuses on several important historical events that took place during Havel’s time as president. Havel calls the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact the most important since it brought a formal end to the bipolar political order that had prevailed since the end of World War II. The Czech Republic joining NATO and the European Union are also discussed in detail. In Chapter 7, Havel concludes the book with somewhat melancholy reflections on his career and on what the future might hold.

The other two strands are woven through the interview questions, though they do not always relate directly to the topic of each chapter.

The second strand is a series of diary entries written from April 2005 to January 2006, the period during which Havel wrote the book. They start at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC where Havel was given office space for two months, and end in Prague. These entries describe his activities, thoughts and moods as he wrote the book. In them we encounter an old man, tired, in declining health, and harried by the thought that time is running out. Yet he still has work to do; write his memoir, give speeches, attend meetings with Presidents and high-ranking officials, and participate in discussions over lunch or dinner with leading thinkers and policy-makers. We also see that Havel, despite his age, his accomplishments, and his international stature, is still beset by his own insecurities and perceived inadequacies, especially his imperfect command of English. Is it humility or neurosis?

The third strand of the braid consists of excerpts from several thousand pages of notes and instructions that Havel wrote to his staff at The Castle which he discovered “stashed away” on his laptop. These are perhaps the most insightful portions of the book, the least rehearsed, the least refined by reflection. The majority are matter-of-fact and businesslike. Some are whimsical, such as one note asking how to remove a bat that had taken up residence in the closet where the vacuum cleaner was kept. In another, Havel expresses his regret that protocol prevented him from strolling through the red light district of Bangkok while on a state visit to Thailand though his staff apparently had no such qualms. Some reflect exasperation and even petulance. Havel hated being dragged into what he called “petty bureaucratic pseudo-problems,” and he is not shy about biting back at his critics. An inordinate number of these notes concern speeches Havel wrote as president; asking for background material, asking for feedback, lamenting that he did not have enough time to write them. Quite a few concern the Castle itself, the physical building, its state of repair, its decoration and its aesthetics. Yet despite being ordinary office correspondence, these instructions are nevertheless well-written, not just bulleted to-do lists but fully formed paragraphs. It’s very clear that whether addressing a NATO summit or his own staff, for Havel the words matter.

These instructions were written from 1993 onward, while Havel was president of the Czech Republic. The most disappointing aspect of the book is that there are no notes from his first term as president of Czechoslovakia. This is a great pity because by 1993 Havel seems to have mastered the role of president. He understands the job, how the machinery of government works, and how to get things done. It would have been fascinating to glimpse his early days in office when he was still learning both the mechanics and the meaning of being president. Unfortunately, Havel didn’t have access to his notes from this period, or didn’t know what had become of them, when he wrote the book.

Throughout the book, Havel touches on themes and ideas that recur frequently in his earlier writings:

Democracy:  Politics must be more than merely a “technology of power.” Democracy and its institutions must be deeply rooted in, indeed are “unthinkable” without a democratic culture. Democracy, in Havel’s view, is more than just a set of systems and institutions. It is a way of approaching and relating to the world, a way of thinking about societal problems, and a way of engaging in public life.  His ideas about an “anti-political politics” have been criticized as idealistic and impractical, but he holds to them.

Responsibility:  In support of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Havel says:

“… decent people in the world could no longer sit by and watch someone committing genocide.”

Drama in politics:  Havel notes that drama – defining beginnings, interruptions, and endings – is critical in politics because politics is an activity that inherently lacks these definitive milestones.

“Politics is more of a strange, never-ending process with no clear turning points and no unambiguous and immediately recognizable outcomes. “

Politicians therefore require a basic “dramatic instinct” in order to rescue politics from appearing boring, grey and pointless.

To the Castle and Back will appeal mainly to readers already familiar with Havel’s life and writing. If you have never read any of Havel’s essays or other books, I would suggest starting with, at minimum, The Power of the Powerless, Letter to Dr. Gustáv Husák, his first New Year’s address to the nation on January 1, 1990, and his 1995 speech to the graduating class of Harvard University.

At several points in the book, Havel shows that he is quite conscious of the fairy-tale-like story of his own life. He knows that his rise from playwright to president has a magical and inspirational quality to it. Yet he retains an essential humility:

“And so I must ultimately pose the question as to whether all of this – the fact that such a peaceable man ended up living such an adventurous life – isn’t a result of the fact that life itself, even the most ordinary and the most inconspicuous life, is an unbelievable miracle.”

To the Castle and Back may not be a good introduction to Havel, but it could be a fine conclusion. Indeed, the most poignant thing about Havel’s latest book is that, at 71, it could be his last.

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