The life and times of Vaclav Havel has a legendary quality. He made the transition within a matter of months from a political prisoner to president of a democratic Czechoslovakia freed from the Soviet bloc.
This wasn’t as accidental as it might seem. Czech Communists were brutal, but temperamentally Havel was not prepared to give way to persecution. His defense was to write plays, comedies of the absurd with humor and vitality within them. Several of the plays had a dissident writer as hero and leader of unofficial opposition like himself. A favorite subject for mockery was Communist language designed to present falsehood as truth. In revenge, they had him stacking barrels in a brewery, and then in prison for various spells with a sentence of hard labor. Prison, he could write to his wife, was “a terrible bore,” an authentically absurd experience. The more they hounded him, the wider his reputation spread at home and abroad.
Hundreds of thousands of people at last began to gather in Prague as in other Soviet-occupied capitals and to call for Havel. “I am only on supply, an amateur standing in for a professional politician,” he said in an improvised speech to the expectant crowd. He meant it. Slight and stooping, casually and even slovenly dressed, with a moustache that gave his face a somewhat woebegone expression, a heavy smoker, he wished to be taken then and afterwards not as a president but as an artist and, in certain engaging moods, even as an eternal student. His offices were in the Prague Castle (immortalized by Kafka), and he was known to ride a scooter along its immense corridors. The thrust of his later writings and speeches was that Communism had made everyone morally ill, or “spiritually impoverished,” in another phrase of his, and it was humanity’s task to recover what had been forfeited.
Early in the course of his presidency, Slovak nationalists argued that the Czechs had not given them their due and they wanted independence. Havel preferred to keep the country united, but for the sake of peace he conceded the separation of Czechs and Slovaks into two countries, thus sparing both of them what might have been Yugoslav-style violence. This was a great decision, but to judge from his autobiography, To the Castle and Back, it cost him peace of mind which the many international prizes and honors awarded to him towards the end of his life could not restore. But he had been the right man in the right place at the right time, and the world is much the better for it.