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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A great, though flawed, man, 5 July 2010
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This review is from: To the Castle and Back (Paperback)
Vaclav Havel is one of the most intriguing figures to have been president of a country in modern Europe. A playwright whose plays used absurdist techniques to satarize tyrany, he then became the first non-Communist to be President of the then Czechoslovakia. When I visited the Czech Republic in 2001, the impression I had then was that he was held in great affection with his people. This has changed since then, not least because of his marriage to an actress soon after the death of his first wife.

The story this memoir tells is largely of Havel's journey as Czech president. How he, as an unlikely candidate for high office, was offered the presidency. There are insights into the isssue of how the then Czechoslovakia split into the two countries fo the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He talks about colleagues, friends, constitutional issues often without malice, though he is always clear where he stands on these issues.

Much of the writing is beautiful, with a certain quirkiness. Juxtaposed between matters of state are transcripts of office memmos and philosophical ponderings. This creates a certain fascination about the man. However, the order of the book is sometimes confusing. It contains a mix of intervews, diary entries and reflections from the beginning of his Presidency justaposed with those recording his departure. And this, perhaps, undermines the telling of the tale as it can be confusing. There are also perhaps too many mundane details, such of office memos which after a while become less interesting.

That said, this book offers fascinating insights into Havel the man. Insights into the human side of someone in political office, though I doubt many politicians have the same degree of self-knowledge, or would be as open about it, as this flawed but, to my mind, great man.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 18 Dec 2011 14:01:13 GMT
Last edited by the author on 18 Dec 2011 14:08:59 GMT
Dear Graham,
The popularity decline of our late president Havel during his tenures WAS NOT because of his second spouse as your comment suggests. It was over-exposed by the media in this way as a controversial step. And of course people in pubs who like to slag off somebody and know nothing better to do with their brains will tell you that. The flawed gossiping dregs of society that can be quite loud in Czech Republic as anywhere else for that matter.
But why should it matter who you marry? Indeed how should it cast a shadow on your presidency? (His 2nd wife is a film/theatre actress Dagmar Veskrnova and I personally have no problem with him marrying her. Nor does anyone who I know. It is his choice. She is blameless. Or should he better marry his friend Dalai Lama?:))

All in all it was NOT the reason why Vaclav Havels popularity was declining in the Czech Republic.
Before 1989 he was an author/poet, playwright, thinker and activist seeking dialogue with the communist power(look for his famous letter he sent to the former communist president Husak in the 70´s where he explains to him how the communist rule twisted Czechoslowak people´s minds-an issue we still deal with today), he had a vision of a society different from the apathetic inert communist one: active citizens and politicians with conscience, rule of law, strong ethics within the society. He said famously when first sworn in: "I hope you did not make me a president and expect me to lie to you".
He was perheps too honest which is generaly not expected from a politician. He was not a real-politik politician, he was more driven by ideals and ethics. More like a ancient Greek politician out of place in the mucky reality of the wild early 90s.
Havel put his heart and high hopes into the presidency, his whole personality in fact. His presidential motto was: "Truth and love will beat lies and hatered".
But as you know a society can not be transformed by one person with good intentions overnight. The wild years of societal and economic transformation after 1989(which still goes on!) saw pushy people and crooks getting richer and powerful at the expense of the rest. The crooks went mainly unpunished. Those with some ethical grounding were angry silent observers.
When Havel rose the expectations for the new society so high and then no major makeover with the morals and virtues within the society happened people grew bitter and blamed whom? Of course him. As if one person guarantees for the whole society. It is a classic example of scapegoating.
He made some unpopular steps though like the general amnesty for all sorts of prisoners when first sworn in. It was and still is criticised by some much more then for his second marriage which is a minor sideshow now really and in fact no ones bussines.
History will judge him all right. He wrote some great comments on the rotten moral core of the communist soicety and the post 89 as well.
Vaclav Havel, born 1936 died this morning 18 December 2011 in his sleep after a protracted battle with illness at his weekend house surrounded by his family. Rest in Peace Vaclav Havel and many thanks!
Just a note to Paul Wilson who co-authored this book. An interesting guy: A Canadian musician who lived in Czechoslowakia between 1967 and 1977 and who kept close contacts with the anti communist dissent itelectual/musical scene and was a guest singer in the regime prohibitted Czech underground band "The Plastic People of the Universe" (look at Wiki for more on the band in English). When the band was put o trial for playing "obscene forbidden music", Wilson was expelled from Czechoslowakia. When back in Canada he set up a music label and published the albums of the band that could not be otherwise published in CZ. He also translated novels and political writing by then outlawed Czech authors like Hrabal, Skvorecky or Havel.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Dec 2011 18:01:06 GMT
Thank you for your fascinating insights. I sense sadness in your words as news of Vaclav Havel's death reaches us.

I am more than happy to eat the comment about his second wife. In fact it was not meant as a judgement upon him. Just a statement of the fact that I had heard his popularity had declined because some people had held it against him. Perhaps I should have put it better. Because I totally agree with your comments about this matter. And of course you are also right point out some may have held against him the fact he did what seemed to be right to him. The distance of time bears this out. It's a sad fact of life that one often is not thanked fordoing the right thing. Mr Havel is a case in point.

Of course is also a paradox in my describing him as "flawed." Another word I might change if writing the review again. One thing that made Mr. Havel great was that he was honest in facing his own flaws. More honest than most of us are. And in that I am not doing him justice because I do regard him as one of the great men of our time. His legacy extends beyond that of helping to make a vibrant country that emerged with dignity from oppression. During his presidency he did much to encourage the arts, science as well as organising things to encourage new thinking in some many areas such as the environment and international relations. We need many more such people.

To finish I am going to sign off with my favourite passage in the book, because it seems to sum up a truth about life as well as language and writing:

"The beauty of language is that it can never capture precisely what it wants. Language is disconnected, hard, digital as it were, and for that reason, but not only for that reason, it can never completely capture something as connected as reality, experience or our souls. This opens the door to the magnificent battle for expression and self-expression that has accompanied man down history. It is a battle without end, and thanks to it, everything that is human is continually being elucidated, each time somewhat differently. Moreover, it is in this battle that man in fact becomes himself. As an individual, and as a species. He simply tries to capture the world and himself more and more exactly through words, images or actions, and the more he succeeds, the more aware he is that he can never completely capture either the world or himself, nor any part of the world. But that drives him to keep trying, again and again and thus he continues to define himself more and more exactly. it is a Sisyphean fate. But it can't be helped: man will carry the complete truth about himself to the grave, though someone, in the end will know that truth after all: if not the Lord God, then at least the great memory of Being."(p347).

This beautiful passage says to me what Vaclav Havel was about. We are considerably poorer without him. Thank you for your "correction."
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Graham Mummery

Location: Sevenoaks, Kent England

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