The New King of Absurdistan: Happy New Year with Dissident President Václav Havel
January 16, 1990
I LEFT CZECHOSLOVAKIA for Italy in 1978, on a two-week visa, presumably to confer with the writer Primo Levi on my translation of his book, Il Sistema Periodico. I extended the visa for 10 years.
When I returned to Prague for the first time in 1988 — well before the recent wave of change swept the country — despite the protection of my U.S. passport and a plentiful supply of Bordeaux on the plane, my palms were sweating. Not a lot had changed. None of my friends were optimistic about the future except for Michal Kocáb, a rock star and composer who had always been banned, balancing between being a conventionally harassed/unconventional artist and a nonperson dissident. Just a week before, he had given an interview to a German TV station in which he brazenly proclaimed that the “old farts will have to go.”
He was right. Last September I found myself in Prague again, with a bit less sweat on my hands, in an atmosphere that strikingly resembled the Prague Spring or 1968. The leviathan was delivering its last kicks, while dissidents were participating in discussions at the universities and factories. The Central Committee members were leaking classified party information like sieves. So many people predicted changes — usually an economic depression, perhaps a change of political leadership within two years — that I stopped asking whether and started asking how.
At his favorite pub, Na Rybárne, Václav Havel was drinking beer with a dozen friends, toasting Martina, a fragile woman who had just become a political widow (that morning her husband, Charter 77 dissident Sasa Vondra, had reported to prison for a two-month sentence).
“Communist officials,” Havel mouthed into his beer stein, “are worried about two things: one, they think I am compiling a list of artists who will not be allowed to publish, direct, or act when things turn around and today’s dissidents are in power, and two, that the offspring of Communist parents will not be allowed to go to college.”
A woman with a generous décolletage and a mini-tape recorder sat on his right hand — a reporter from the increasingly independent Socialist Party official daily, Svobodné Slovo. Sitting on the outer edge of the table, I listened to Havel’s story about the holiday chain of visits to women admirers, which ended with him being ferreted out by journalists and falling into a sewer.
“And, as I was down there groping for my life in the shit,” he deadpanned, “I thought about the headlines for [the official Communist daily] Rude Pravo: DISSIDENT SCUM DIES THE WAY HE LIVED.”
AS THE ABSURDIST playwright surfaced as the likeliest candidate for King of Absurdistan last month, I landed there with my friend Bonnie Stein.
The Civic Forum offices have moved twice in the first three weeks of the revolution, and are now at the bottom of Wenceslas Square, manned mostly by students. The atmosphere is one of jubilant disorganization and bohemian messiness. Many of the protagonists, including Václav Havel, invoke the ’60s when they talk to us, but it is hard to tell whether they refer to the reform movement that led to the Prague Spring or the omnipresent ghost of flower power. While they profess that words like socialism, capitalism, right, and left have become empty shells, love, democracy, gentleness, trust, ecology are sacred invocations …
The premises used to belong to the Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship Society, and our friends repeatedly stress the irony with a childish glint in their eyes.
Phone lists, messages, slogans, enlarged political cartoons, and three incongruous neckties are tacked to the walls. Much noise has been made about Havel’s crossover into the realm of ties and suit jackets, but many have shared in his new sartorial sophistication. (“When we started the Havel na Hrad [presidential castle] campaign,” says Havel’s speech watchdog, Petr Oslzly, “we polled some ‘normal’ people about what they would like [Vaclav] to change about himself, and many responded he should wear a tie. Then some workers from a garment factory brought us five ties, and since he had already found one of his own, we keep them in the office as an emergency tie pool. Whenever anybody needs one, he borrows it off the wall … “)
In the office: one copier, a peach-faced guy Friday pecking at a brand-new computer, and too few overloaded phone lines. Jan Urban, old friend and Forum spokesman, fills us in on all the madness while we help him and a bunch of students carry a half-ton safe five flights up.
“This is what I have to do between Round Table meetings with the powers-that-be,” he sighs. “Must be a punishment for not accepting all those lucrative job offers. Yesterday, it was the chief of a TV department, and today, an ambassador. Persecution forced me to become a dissident, now all I want to do is to finish this spring cleaning and be my own man again.”
Katherine, a medical student, climbs over the resting safe. “There is a man downstairs that absolutely has to speak with you or, he says, the Forum in his town is doomed.”
The antiorganization character of the Civic Forum, with its policy of nonparty nonpolitics, intensifies the natural revolutionary sloppiness to create a sense of being too busy to breathe. Guests and Civic Forum leaders alike often stop to wonder aloud, “How could we have possibly won? We are just lucky that the Communist Party turned out to be in a much bigger mess than we expected.”
Visitors are loosely frisked in the poster-covered entrance hall. Two baby-faced policemen and a mug-faced plainclothes detective have taken positions by the doorway. They are armed, refuse to divulge their names, but they are here at Forum request after some threatening letters and phone calls. At best, their screening helps to check the stream of well-wishers and gawkers. Any half-serious terrorist carrying an expired East Peoria sanitation department union card could dance all the way to Havel’s door.
ON THE FRIDAY BEFORE Christmas, we watch Havel spar with journalists at a press conference in Laterna Magica Theatre. On periodic pilgrimages to the chief dissident during the last 20 years, the media have had (but did not always publish) a rambling statement. Now, he dodges their questions in public, and the aura of persecuted innocence is fading.
“The reason I am doing this press conference is because many journalists have asked me for interviews,” Havel says. “And I am sorry to say that if I did this for everyone who wanted me to I would only have time to comment on the revolution, not participate in it.”
When a two-party political system is mentioned, Mr. H. seizes the opportunity to outline his ideal of non-politics politics:
“Personalities should play an increasingly important role in the future, and political parties should have a lesser role. According to me, political parties should be reduced to mere clubs, in which political personalities are born and find their platform. But I think political parties should not directly wield power, because that is one of the methods by which the powers-that-be become anonymous. In my opinion the only way of saving this civilization is to liberate the human being from manipulation by all megastructures which modern man has created, and which now are in the process of destroying him.”
“What was the last artistic work you were able to complete,” I ask, “and when do you see the next one coming?”
“My last play is called Slum Clearance. It is supposed to be produced in New York sometime soon. I wrote it two years ago. Last year I started another play, but I have never been able to finish it because, as you see, history has overtaken me. But I do believe the moment will come when I will be able to complete it.
“I’ll be happy when my popularity dissipates because it is slightly complicating my work.”
While our noncandidate offers nonanswers and one-liners to journalists and speaks convincingly of new, “legible” parties to machine workers in Presov and ironworkers in Kladno — his aides are learning the art of making nonstatements and strategic leaks. On December 23, one tells us about an old Czech tradition of eating snails on the day before Christmas. “This is very confidential,” we are told, “but Klasterni Vinarna (Cloister Wine Cellar) at lunchtime is the best place to observe such a tradition.”
We take the hint and wait in ambush for our playwright on the day before Christmas Eve. Havel strides in with an enormous bouquet of red roses. By some fluke we manage to get past John Bok, Havel’s private iron curtain. Mr. H. smiles, and begs for pity — this is the first personal moment he has had in six weeks. He is visibly exhausted, but glad to make an exception from the no-interview policy for us. Any other time but now. How about after Christmas?
We enjoy our expensive lunch, fried breadcrumbs laced with snail slivers, crowned with a chambered nautilus.
FOUR DAYS LATER, on December 27, we enter the crowded waiting room of Havel’s office in the Civic Forum building with a flower for the playwright. Havel expects to be named president in two days, after which he will leave for a tour of the two Germanies — instead of Moscow, the traditional destination of inaugural state visits.
“Mr. President” — John Bok’s tongue slips, as many have since Havel’s adversaries in the Federal Assembly, only one week earlier, beslobbered one another in unanimous praise of their archenemy — ”Mr. President will see you in a few minutes.”
The office is filled with the familiar faces of Havel’s entourage, all busily writing, listening to tapes, editing, whispering. In an adjacent nook, Havel confers with Eda Kriseova, his spokeswoman.
Havel greets us with a warm handshake and attentive, blue eyes. The walls of the office are covered with posters and photos. There are two intriguing recent gifts: a plaque of the Bill of Rights from a U.S. senator (no one can remember who), and a watercolor with a calligraphic inscription from Samuel Beckett’s play, Catastrophe, dedicated to Václav Havel.
VÍT HOREJS: Mr. Havel, we have followed your work in New York and enjoyed your plays at the Public Theatre. First of all l want to know something about you. What is the driving force behind Václav Havel
VÁCLAV HAVEL: That is easy, I can even answer you in English. I don’t know. [Laughter] But for your purposes, I must say something. I do not consider myself a very strong or courageous man. Others may judge my courage. I did not invent the complications in my life, neither prison nor presidency. Fate, in its weird, tortuous way, has placed me in these predicaments.
HOREJS: What will be your priority as president of Czechoslovakia?
HAVEL: If I am president, I must lead this country toward free elections and insure that the road be peaceful and fair. The same ideals of love which carried through our merry revolution should guarantee that the elections will not be sullied by intrigue and ambition. And I will also contribute to strengthening the authority and credibility of Czechoslovakia in the world.
HOREJS: You said that you would agree to be president temporarily until the free election period. How do you expect to make the difficult adjustment back from politics to art?
HAVEL: If all goes the way I wish it to, I will be a temporary, one-task president. And then, I would like to work somewhere in the theater and devote myself to my literary work. That doesn’t mean that I will resign from my civic-minded duties. If the motherland wants or needs me again, I will be at her disposition until the end of my days.
HOREJS: What are the similarities between your political work and your work as a playwright? How does one influence the other?
HAVEL: I, myself, don’t have any conscious intention to transpose theater into politics or to carry politics into theater. Nevertheless, I have observed that our revolution, thanks to its heavenly director and not to me, has several elements of classical drama and theater of the absurd. It is, in fact, actually quite closely related to a theater experience.
HOREJS: You mentioned a new play that you have been, or rather have not been, writing for a while about an aging dictator who loses his power and becomes ridiculous. Do you intend to finish this play, and if so, do you think it will change now?
HAVEL: I started to write this play a year ago, in the fall. I didn’t finish it, then I went to prison, and then this [revolution] started. There was so much other work to do that I didn’t get back to it at all. Nevertheless, I returned to it for 10-days just before the revolution, and I found out that suddenly the material had somehow become very distant, and I was up with it. And that next, I need to start, as we say in Czech, “in a green meadow.” With completely different material, and I intend to throw this one out.
HOREJS: When you were in prison did you spend most of your time thinking about politics or about artistic work? Or how bad the food was? or what?
HAVEL: I had a great deal of time to think about many things. [Havel has spent a total of five and a half years in prison through four prison terms. The longest sentence was for four and a half years.]
HOREJS: Are you familiar with the work of the writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who is running for president of Peru? Should artists be, in general, more involved in politics?
HAVEL: As far as I know he is the only writer running for presidential office today — if we don’t count the presidents who write to celebrate their own glory. I feel even from some of his interviews that I read some parallels between his situation and mine. Should I be president, it may be hard to find time to visit him in Peru. But perhaps he will find time to visit me here. And if he doesn’t find the time, at least we can exchange letters of condolence.
HOREJS: What do you think of Shirley Temple Black? Do you know her old films? What about her as a choice for U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia?
HAVEL: I know her, and I think she is certainly congenial enough for an ambassador. My wife knows her films more than I because she is kind of a film buff. Mrs. Black even gave me a book of her memoirs, and I have a videocassette of her old movies. When l have a free weekend, which I cannot expect to happen too soon, I would love to watch one of her old movies.
HOREJS: I am sure that you are busy and have many travel plans and invitations. Do you plan to visit the U.S. soon?
HAVEL: If Mr. Bush invites me, I would be glad to oblige. But at the most for two days. I don’t have time for any long visits.
HOREJS: Yes, it would be nice if he does invite you. In the U.S. during the president’s last two months of his term, he is usually considered a lame duck. Since you will probably only serve a few months, do you think [Czech politicians] will try to stall decision-making, or prevent you from achieving your goals?
HAVEL: I am well aware that although I am a shy and polite person, if I am elected, I will be a strong president. And I will not allow anyone to drag their feet on my programs.
HOREJS: In your essay “Words on Words” [Slovo o Slovu, an acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers association], you mention how words like “socialism” and “peace” may become billyclubs that a government uses to beat the population into apathy. You say that even a ward like “perestroika” could become a billyclub. We have noticed that in many of your political speeches you have had to simplify your thoughts. Do you think there is a danger now or in the future that your words could run away from you, be subject to corruption, and no longer under your control?
HAVEL: Of course there is such a danger, and I must be constantly on guard against that kind of thing. Mainly, I expect that there will be a free society with an opposition that keeps tabs on me, to notify me of such a danger should I not notice it myself. Right now this danger exists from a purely technical viewpoint because I have to repeat myself in steel foundries and the public squares, etc. Not everybody can follow everything, and I must get the message across somehow. The TV speeches are not enough for this, because not all people have the time to watch them. I try to vary some ideas, and don’t think that these words are becoming so stiff that they lose meaning by repetition.
HOREJS: Who are the writers and playwrights in the U.S. that you admire?
HAVEL: Since I was young, I have highly valued American literature and have read all you can imagine, from Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg to Norman Mailer. At the moment, I can’t say that there is one writer that has had a direct influence on me. Of course there have been tons of indirect influences.
But perhaps more than American literature, it is the American atmosphere that has affected me since 1968, when I traveled there. Now I realize that there are numerous parallels between the ’60s in America and Czechoslovakia in the ’80s. I could illustrate with hundreds of cases, and I feel that the soul of the ’60s is being revived by us here today. In our country, in a different form, more articulately. And in that way I am influenced by America. I was in the U.S. for six months in ’68, and experienced such things as the very impressive student strikes.
Our revolution had a number of steps that were in some way preparatory states. One of these was, for example, the Joan Baez concert in Bratislava. She invited us there and spoke from the stage about Charter 77, and we agreed with many friends that the spirit of the ’60s was somehow revived there with Baez, a symbol for the non-violent ’60s peace movement. [In fact, that concert was stopped by the authorities and resulted in many arrests.]
HOREJS: We see that your staff is getting you ready for the TV interview. Have you anything else for us?
HAVEL: Yes, I would like to send greetings to all the Village Voice readers. And especially please give my regards to my good friends, Joe Papp and Susan Sontag. Tell them to visit soon.
RITA KLIMOVA, THE NEW Czech ambassador-designate to the U.S., can’t make it to Havel’s presidential inauguration. We accept her invitation to watch it on TV in her home not far from the parade ground where the largest democracy demonstrations occurred in November. A round-faced, vivacious mother figure, she was expelled from the party in 1970, then fired from her job as an economics professor. “They almost didn’t expel me,” she says, “but I convinced them that I did not agree with the  invasion, and I had been going to [dissident] meetings.” In the Forum’s early days, she handled foreign journalists and interpreted for Havel, for no pay. Her English has a slight New York ring to it, leftover from childhood days when she and her family were refugees from Hitler living on Riverside Drive and 149th Street.
Seeing Havel on TV in a beautifully tailored suit, tie, and dapper overcoat sends her rolling with laughter.
“Poor man! He hates this kind of thing. He must be so uncomfortable!”
Then, before you could say “dissident,” all the president’s enemies elect him by a suspiciously unanimous show of hands. Havel gives the shortest acceptance speech in history from the Prague castle balcony, then marches in front of the army, inspecting the uniforms of the palace guard who parade in his honor. The irony of the situation sends us all into gales of hysterical laughter. But the bottom line is crystal clear: He is President! The only president in living history who, in one breath, can quote John Lennon, Samuel Beckett, and Immanuel Kant.
The next day, the Forum receives 200 calls about Havel’s too-short inauguration trousers. The public is keeping an eye on him, supporting his claim that they scrutinize his mistakes.
We are invited to spend New Year’s Eve with Havel … and about 500 of his closest friends. Held in the tacky 1880’s Ironworkers’ Palace of Culture, a ballroom vaguely reminiscent of the Ritz, the party is sponsored by the “Society for a Merrier Present.” Guests at this New Year’s bash include all Prague’s beautiful people, artists, Charter 77 signatories, and a handful of flashy foreigners: filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci; writer/professor Arnost Lustig from Washington University; and Metropolitan Museum chairman William Luers, a former ambassador to Czechoslovakia from the U.S., and his wife Wendy.
Havel is guarded by six guys whose born-again smiles do not betray their black belts in karate. It is a party, definitely not a press conference, and Václav is The Good King: relaxed, smothered in kisses and well-wishes. Amid bubbly galore (the Czech and Russian Romanian champagne ran out before midnight) and waves of laughter, Bonnie sneaks in a couple of questions:
BONNIE STEIN: Happy New Year! So, How does it feel to be president?
VÁCLAV HAVEL: [Smile, kiss.] Feel? Did you say feel? I have no idea. I have had no time for feelings.
STEIN: How was your meeting with Mario Soares, the Portuguese president?
HAVEL: He is the first president to visit me here, and to support me openly since last month. He and the students sent us 5000 roses. Mr. Soares has also been in prison, so we had an interesting exchange about our mutual experiences. And he gave me an automobile.
A 1989 RENAULT 21.
Havel is jovial and more like his old self, although he does wear a suit and has to slip away for an hour at midnight to Wensceslas Square, where 100,000 of his subjects wait to cheer in the year with him. The resemblance to the monarchy is uncanny.
By 4 a.m., we are wishing for even a fiberglass East German Trabant to putt-putt us home. With no taxis or public transportation available, we walk for a chilly mile, then thumb a ride from a moonlighting BMW with a well-pickled driver.
Everything is anticlimactic after the presidential New Year’s speech, which began: “You didn’t elect me to tell you more lies.” Austerity is in the air. Even Rude Pravo, the communist daily, is downscaled to half its size at double the price. The joke going around Prague: “Rude Pravo has gotten so small that those who read it can’t even hide behind it anymore.”
Still, at last the old saying has a new twist: “Now the dissidents can fart without getting arrested.” ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 7, 2020