Vaclav Havel: a life almost too full to be true

Havel's translator, Paul Wilson, on the statesman, the dissident, the artist

One of my most vivid memories of Vaclav Havel—who died this morning after a struggle of many years with infirmities that would long since have killed a lesser man—involves a conversation he had in 1996 with our then governor-general, Romeo LeBlanc, who was in Prague on a state visit. It was during an intimate dinner in one of Havel’s favorite restaurants; I was there too—officially, as LeBlanc’s “cultural advisor,” though really, my job was to hold hands on both side of the table. His Excellency was nervous about meeting a great man and an author of world stature; Havel was nervous, too, because he was a naturally shy, modest man who, in his thirteen years as head of state (first of Czechoslovakia and then, from 1993 on, of the Czech Reublic) never really felt comfortable on official occasions like this. He was far more at ease exchanging monosyllables with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones (Havel’s English was servicable, but rudimentary) or visiting Valdice, the Czech maximum security prison that is, in a sense, Havel’s alma mater, where he could mingle with inmates who treated him as one of their own.

I had known Havel for over twenty years, mainly as his translator, which is to say, he trusted me with his voice, a trust I was honoured to take on. At one point in the dinner, Havel leaned over to LeBlanc and asked him, politician to politician, how he—LeBlanc—looked on the matter of Quebec separatism? It was three years after Czechoslovakia had split in two, and Havel was still haunted by his own inability to keep the country together. Of course, he was curious about the question of how separatism played out in Canada, but what really interested him was something more personal. How, he asked, did LeBlanc, a francophone who was also a staunch federalist, manage to get along with politicians who, though colleagues, had argued vehemently for the destruction of Canada? Why had the arguments for and against Quebec independence not quickly degenerated, as similar arguments had in Czechoslovakia, into bitter and irreconcilable intransigence?

Havel’s question was really about political culture, and LeBlanc handled it very nicely. He talked about the notion of parliamentary decorum, about collegiality among politicians who, regardless of political differences, had one thing in common: they had all undergone the rough and tumble of political campaigning in a general election. In that sense, they were all brothers and sisters in arms, and as such, had to treat each other with respect, even in matters as vital as the unity of the country.

I could tell that Havel, who bore the scars of a very different style of political battle, understood exactly what LeBlanc was saying. I also felt that he was almost envious. For years—most of his life, in fact—Havel had opposed that most intransigent of political foes: Soviet-style communism. In that conflict, it was gloves off, all the way. And now, one of his fondest hopes for his country was not just that it be democratic, but that it be a civilized democracy, a democracy, if you like, with good manners.

As president, he had argued incessantly for a democratic politics in which morality and decency would prevail, in which parliamentary democracy would be underpinned by a confident civil society—the dense network of non-parliamentary and non-government organizations where so much of the work of democracy is done. He had argued, unsuccessfully, for an electoral system that closely resembled the Westminster model, of single-member constituencies where a simple majority would carry the day, because he believed this would encourage stronger ties between electors and their representatives. He argued, again unsuccessfully, for the devolution of many central government powers to the regions and the municipalities. He wanted a strong charitable, non-profit sector, but he didn’t get that either. He watched as political parties quickly devolved into rancourous entities that found it hard to agree on anything and created coalition governments that tended to fall apart too easily, leaving the public standing on the sidelines, bewildered and angry.

In many ways, Havel’s years in high political office were the most difficult of his life—even more difficult than his days as a dissident, when police harassment was routine and all-pervasive and hard time in prison was a constant reality. And yet, despite many defeats, and despite a constant, running conflict with his nemesis, Vaclav Klaus, who as prime minister, and now as president, opposed Havel’s every suggestion—despite all that, President Havel managed to achieve more than seems humanly possible. He presided over the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact; he brought his country into NATO in 1989, and into the European Community in 2004. His international stature made the country visible abroad, and was probably responsible for helping to turn Prague into a tourist mecca. His weekly addresses to the nation via radio kept his values in focus, and his presence in the Castle was, no doubt, one of the main factors that made the break-up of the country go as smoothly as it did.

Less than a year after Havel met LeBlanc, he was operated on for lung cancer. During the rest of his tenure in office, he was dogged by gradually deteriorating health, and by the time his second term was up in early 2003, he was, I think, glad to get back to civilian life. But that was not the end of the story.

Havel was also the first Czechoslovak president in many decades to have a presidential after-life, as it were. He wrote a quirky memoir, To the Castle and Back, and another full-length play, ironically titled Leaving, which he also turned into a movie. He and his second wife, Dagmar, ran a charitable foundation that, among other things, reconstructed an old Prague church as a performance and exhibition space. He actively supported human rights movements in countries like Cuba, China, Burma, and Belarus. As dissident, as president, and as ex-president, he had a full life that seems almost too full to be true. He has left behind him a large body of literary work: game-changing plays, essays, letters, and commentaries. It has been a life of political service and dedication, a life of conviviality, a life that inspired others and, though it sounds like a cliché, a life that in the end, made the world a better place.

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