Vaclav Havel’s To the Castle and Back is both absurdly funny and informative
May 23, 2007
Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch party organized by the Czech Center. The party included a fascinating reading of the book, an extremely funny preview of an upcoming documentary on Havel’s life, and a question and answer session with Paul Wilson, who translated the book in English, and Martin Palous, Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United Nations.
The book is extremely unusual. It is a non-chronological collage of three overlapping parts: extended answers to the Czech political journalist who questioned him for a book-length interview 20 years ago, extracts from office memos to his staff when he was president of Czechoslovakia (1989-92) and the Czech Republic after its separation from Slovakia (1993-2003) and entries to his diary written during his stay in DC in 2005.
As Havel said himself in a video interview on the book, he had no aspiration to write a ponderous book as Kissinger had. However, as an absurd playwright and political prisoner before becoming his country’s first Communist president, Havel is very aware of the irony and absurdity of the position he was put in. His book, while seemingly disorganized, clearly communicates that. It also highlights his strength of character and the effectiveness moral authority, pragmatism and candor can have in politics when the times are right.
Surprisingly given the importance of the events the book covers, it is sometimes incredibly funny. The book includes many seemingly random and trivial notes and comments by Havel on everything and anything: Americans, his search for salt in the US to accompany his meals, his introduction of smoking in the White House and the Kremlin and numerous funny memos to his staff covering trivialities from removing the bat in the closet to lengthening a garden hose. Those are only made funnier by their juxtaposition with serious musings and observations.
Read the book! It will entertain you, enlighten you on the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact (which was one of Havel’s key accomplishments), and actually show what it means to be a President on a daily basis.