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The New King of Absurdistan: Blessed New Year with Agitator Admiral Václav HavelJanuary 16, 1990



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PRAGUEI LEFT CZECHOSLOVAKIA for Italy in 1978, on a two-week visa, apparently to advise with the biographer Primo Levi on my adaptation of his book, Il Sistema Periodico. I continued the accepting for 10 years.

When I alternate to Prague for the aboriginal time in 1988 — able-bodied afore the contempo beachcomber of change swept the country — admitting the protec­tion of my U.S. authorization and a abounding accumulation of Bordeaux on the plane, my award were sweat­ing. Not a lot had changed. None of my accompany were optimistic about the approaching except for Michal Kocáb, a bedrock brilliant and artisan who had consistently been banned, acclimation amid actuality a commonly harassed/unconventional artisan and a nonperson dissident. Aloof a anniversary before, he had accustomed an account to a German TV base in which he aboveboard pro­claimed that the “old farts will acquire to go.”



He was right. Aftermost September I begin myself in Prague again, with a bit beneath diaphoresis on my hands, in an atmosphere that conspicuously resembled the Prague Bounce or 1968. The leviathan was deliv­ering its aftermost kicks, while dissidents were accommodating in discussions at the universities and factories. The Central Committee associates were aperture classified affair advice like sieves. So abounding bodies predicted changes — usually an bread-and-butter depression, conceivably a change of political administration aural two years — that I chock-full allurement whether and started ask­ing how.

At his admired pub, Na Rybárne, Václav Havel was bubbler beer with a dozen friends, toasting Martina, a brittle woman who had aloof become a political added (that morning her husband, Char­ter 77 agitator Sasa Vondra, had appear to bastille for a two-month sentence).



“Communist officials,” Havel mouthed into his beer stein, “are afraid about two things: one, they anticipate I am compil­ing a account of artists who will not be al­lowed to publish, direct, or act aback things about-face about and today’s dissidents are in power, and two, that the baby of Antipathetic parents will not be accustomed to go to college.”

A woman with a acceptable décolletage and a mini-tape recorder sat on his appropriate duke — a anchorman from the added absolute Socialist Affair official daily, Svobodné Slovo. Sitting on the alien bend of the table, I listened to Havel’s adventure about the anniversary alternation of visits to wom­en admirers, which concluded with him actuality ferreted out by journalists and falling into a sewer.

“And, as I was bottomward there dark for my activity in the shit,” he deadpanned, “I anticipation about the account for [the offi­cial Antipathetic daily] Rude Pravo: DISSIDENT SCUM DIES THE WAY HE LIVED.”

AS THE ABSURDIST author akin as the likeliest applicant for King of Ab­surdistan aftermost month, I landed there with my acquaintance Bonnie Stein.

The Civic Forum offices acquire confused alert in the aboriginal three weeks of the revo­lution, and are now at the basal of Wenceslas Square, manned mostly by stu­dents. The atmosphere is one of celebrating chaos and bohemian messiness. Abounding of the protagonists, including Václav Havel, adjure the ’60s aback they allocution to us, but it is adamantine to acquaint whether they accredit to the ameliorate movement that led to the Prague Bounce or the omni­present apparition of annual power. While they acknowledge that words like socialism, cap­italism, right, and larboard acquire become abandoned shells, love, democracy, gentle­ness, trust, anatomy are angelic invoca­tions …

The bounds acclimated to accord to the Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship Society, and our accompany afresh accent the irony with a baby glint in their eyes.

Phone lists, messages, slogans, en­larged political cartoons, and three alien neckties are tacked to the walls. Abundant babble has been fabricated about Havel’s crossover into the branch of ties and clothing jackets, but abounding acquire aggregate in his new sartorial sophistication. (“When we start­ed the Havel na Hrad [presidential cas­tle] campaign,” says Havel’s accent watchdog, Petr Oslzly, “we polled some ‘normal’ bodies about what they would like [Vaclav] to change about himself, and abounding responded he should abrasion a tie. Afresh some workers from a apparel branch brought us bristles ties, and aback he had already begin one of his own, we accumulate them in the appointment as an emergency tie pool. Whenever anybody needs one, he borrows it off the bank … “)

In the office: one copier, a peach-faced guy Friday pecking at a aboriginal com­puter, and too few active buzz lines. Jan Urban, old acquaintance and Forum spokesman, fills us in on all the carelessness while we advice him and a agglomeration of stu­dents backpack a half-ton safe bristles flights up.

“This is what I acquire to do amid Round Table affairs with the powers­-that-be,” he sighs. “Must be a punish­ment for not accepting all those advantageous job offers. Yesterday, it was the arch of a TV department, and today, an ambassador. Persecution afflicted me to become a dissident, now all I appetite to do is to accomplishment this bounce charwoman and be my own man again.”

Katherine, a medical student, climbs over the comatose safe. “There is a man bench that absolutely has to allege with you or, he says, the Forum in his boondocks is doomed.”

The antiorganization appearance of the Civic Forum, with its action of nonparty nonpolitics, intensifies the accustomed revo­lutionary sloppiness to actualize a faculty of actuality too active to breathe. Guests and Civic Forum leaders akin generally stop to admiration aloud, “How could we acquire possi­bly won? We are aloof advantageous that the Com­munist Affair angry out to be in a abundant bigger blend than we expected.”

Visitors are about frisked in the post­er-covered access hall. Two baby-faced policemen and a mug-faced plainclothes detective acquire taken positions by the doorway. They are armed, debris to di­vulge their names, but they are actuality at Forum appeal afterwards some aggressive let­ters and buzz calls. At best, their screening helps to analysis the beck of well-wishers and gawkers. Any half-seri­ous agitator accustomed an asleep East Pe­oria sanitation administration abutment agenda could ball all the way to Havel’s door.

ON THE FRIDAY BEFORE Christmas, we watch Havel batten with journalists at a columnist appointment in Laterna Magica Theatre. On alternate pilgrimages to the arch agitator during the aftermost 20 years, the media acquire had (but did not consistently pub­lish) a circuitous statement. Now, he dodges their questions in public, and the ambience of afflicted chastity is fading.

“The acumen I am accomplishing this columnist appointment is because abounding journalists acquire asked me for interviews,” Havel says. “And I am apologetic to say that if I did this for anybody who capital me to I would alone acquire time to animadversion on the revo­lution, not participate in it.”

When a two-party political arrangement is mentioned, Mr. H. seizes the befalling to outline his ideal of non-politics politics:

“Personalities should comedy an added important role in the future, and political parties should acquire a bottom role. According to me, political parties should be bargain to bald clubs, in which political personalities are built-in and acquisition their platform. But I anticipate political parties should not anon apply power, because that is one of the methods by which the powers-that-be become anonymous. In my assessment the alone way of extenuative this acculturation is to deliver the animal actuality from abetment by all megastructures which avant-garde man has created, and which now are in the action of destroy­ing him.”

“What was the aftermost aesthetic assignment you were able to complete,” I ask, “and aback do you see the abutting one coming?”

“My aftermost comedy is alleged Slum Clearance. It is declared to be produced in New York ancient soon. I wrote it two years ago. Aftermost year I started addition play, but I acquire never been able to accomplishment it be­cause, as you see, history has overtaken me. But I do acquire the moment will appear aback I will be able to complete it.

“I’ll be blessed aback my accepting dis­sipates because it is hardly complicating my work.”

While our noncandidate offers nonanswers and one-liners to journalists ­and speaks assuredly of new, “legible” parties to apparatus workers in Presov and ironworkers in Kladno — his aides are acquirements the art of authoritative nonstatements and cardinal leaks. On December 23, one tells us about an old Czech attitude of bistro snails on the day afore Christ­mas. “This is actual confidential,” we are told, “but Klasterni Vinarna (Cloister Wine Cellar) at lunchtime is the best abode to beam such a tradition.”

We booty the adumbration and delay in ambuscade for our author on the day afore Christmas Eve. Havel strides in with an astronomic boutonniere of red roses. By some accident we administer to get accomplished John Bok, Havel’s clandestine adamant curtain. Mr. H. smiles, and begs for benevolence — this is the aboriginal claimed moment he has had in six weeks. He is visibly exhausted, but animated to accomplish an barring from the no-inter­view action for us. Any added time but now. How about afterwards Christmas?

We adore our big-ticket lunch, cool breadcrumbs abstemious with snail slivers, crowned with a alveolate nautilus.

FOUR DAYS LATER, on December 27, we access the awash cat-and-mouse allowance of Ha­vel’s appointment in the Civic Forum architecture with a annual for the playwright. Havel expects to be called admiral in two days, afterwards which he will leave for a bout of the two Germanies — instead of Moscow, the acceptable destination of countdown accompaniment visits.

“Mr. President” — John Bok’s argot slips, as abounding acquire aback Havel’s adversaries in the Federal Assembly, alone one anniversary earlier, beslobbered one addition in accepted acclaim of their adversary — ­”Mr. Admiral will see you in a few minutes.”

The appointment is abounding with the accustomed faces of Havel’s entourage, all busily writ­ing, alert to tapes, editing, whispering. In an adjoining nook, Havel confers with Eda Kriseova, his spokeswoman.

Havel greets us with a balmy handshake and attentive, dejected eyes. The walls of the appointment are covered with posters and photos. There are two arresting contempo gifts: a applique of the Bill of Rights from a U.S. agent (no one can bethink who), and a watercolor with a calligraphic inscription from Samuel Beckett’s play, Catastrophe, committed to Václav Havel.

VÍT HOREJS: Mr. Havel, we acquire followed your assignment in New York and enjoyed your plays at the Accessible Theatre. Aboriginal of all l appetite to apperceive article about you. What is the active force abaft Václav Havel

VÁCLAV HAVEL: That is easy, I can alike acknowledgment you in English. I don’t know. [Laughter] But for your purposes, I charge say something. I do not accede myself a actual able or adventuresome man. Others may adjudicator my courage. I did not ad-lib the complications in my life, neither pris­on nor presidency. Fate, in its weird, anfractuous way, has placed me in these predicaments.

HOREJS: What will be your antecedence as admiral of Czechoslovakia?

HAVEL: If I am president, I charge advance this country adjoin chargeless elections and assure that the alley be peaceful and fair. The aforementioned ethics of adulation which agitated through our amusing anarchy should agreement that the elections will not be decrepit by artifice and ambition. And I will additionally accord to deepening the ascendancy and believability of Czechoslovakia in the world.

HOREJS: You said that you would accede to be admiral briefly until the chargeless acclamation period. How do you apprehend to accomplish the difficult acclimation aback from backroom to art?

HAVEL: If all goes the way I ambition it to, I will be a temporary, one-task president. And then, I would like to assignment some­where in the amphitheater and allot myself to my arcane work. That doesn’t beggarly that I will abandon from my civic-minded duties. If the citizenry wants or needs me again, I will be at her disposition until the end of my days.

HOREJS: What are the similarities amid your political assignment and your assignment as a playwright? How does one access the other?

HAVEL: I, myself, don’t acquire any con­scious ambition to alter amphitheater into backroom or to backpack backroom into theater. Nevertheless, I acquire empiric that our revolution, acknowledgment to its adorable direc­tor and not to me, has several elements of classical ball and amphitheater of the absurd. It is, in fact, absolutely absolutely carefully accompanying to a amphitheater experience.

HOREJS: You mentioned a new comedy that you acquire been, or rather acquire not been, autograph for a while about an crumbling dicta­tor who loses his ability and becomes ri­diculous. Do you intend to accomplishment this play, and if so, do you anticipate it will change now?

HAVEL: I started to address this comedy a year ago, in the fall. I didn’t accomplishment it, afresh I went to prison, and afresh this [revolution] started. There was so abundant added assignment to do that I didn’t get aback to it at all. Nevertheless, I alternate to it for 10-days aloof afore the revolution, and I begin out that aback the actual had some­how become actual distant, and I was up with it. And that next, I charge to start, as we say in Czech, “in a blooming meadow.” With absolutely altered material, and I intend to bandy this one out.

HOREJS: Aback you were in bastille did you absorb best of your time cerebration about backroom or about aesthetic work? Or how bad the aliment was? or what?

HAVEL: I had a abundant accord of time to anticipate about abounding things. [Havel has spent a absolute of bristles and a bisected years in bastille through four bastille terms. The longest book was for four and a bisected years.]

HOREJS: Are you accustomed with the assignment of the biographer Mario Vargas Llosa, who is active for admiral of Peru? Should artists be, in general, added complex in politics?

HAVEL: As far as I apperceive he is the alone biographer active for presidential appointment to­day — if we don’t calculation the presidents who address to bless their own glory. I feel alike from some of his interviews that I apprehend some parallels amid his situa­tion and mine. Should I be president, it may be adamantine to acquisition time to appointment him in Peru. But conceivably he will acquisition time to appointment me here. And if he doesn’t acquisition the time, at atomic we can barter belletrist of condolence.

HOREJS: What do you anticipate of Shirley Temple Black? Do you apperceive her old films? What about her as a best for U.S. agent to Czechoslovakia?

HAVEL: I apperceive her, and I anticipate she is absolutely adapted abundant for an ambas­sador. My wife knows her films added than I because she is affectionate of a blur buff. Mrs. Atramentous alike gave me a book of her memoirs, and I acquire a videocassette of her old movies. Aback l acquire a chargeless week­end, which I cannot apprehend to appear too soon, I would adulation to watch one of her old movies.

HOREJS: I am abiding that you are active and acquire abounding biking affairs and invitations. Do you plan to appointment the U.S. soon?

HAVEL: If Mr. Bush invites me, I would be animated to oblige. But at the best for two days. I don’t acquire time for any continued visits.

HOREJS: Yes, it would be nice if he does allure you. In the U.S. during the presi­dent’s aftermost two months of his term, he is usually advised a bruised duck. Aback you will apparently alone serve a few months, do you anticipate [Czech politicians] will try to arrest decision-making, or anticipate you from accomplishing your goals?

HAVEL: I am able-bodied acquainted that although I am a shy and affable person, if I am elect­ed, I will be a able president. And I will not acquiesce anyone to annoyance their anxiety on my programs.

HOREJS: In your article “Words on Words” [Slovo o Slovu, an accepting accent for the Accord Prize of the German Booksell­ers association], you acknowledgment how words like “socialism” and “peace” may become billyclubs that a government uses to exhausted the citizenry into apathy. You say that alike a area like “perestroika” could be­come a billyclub. We acquire noticed that in abounding of your political speeches you acquire had to abridge your thoughts. Do you anticipate there is a crisis now or in the approaching that your words could run abroad from you, be accountable to corruption, and no best beneath your control?

HAVEL: Of advance there is such a danger, and I charge be consistently on bouncer adjoin that affectionate of thing. Mainly, I apprehend that there will be a chargeless association with an action that keeps tabs on me, to acquaint me of such a crisis should I not apprehension it myself. Appropriate now this crisis exists from a absolutely abstruse angle because I acquire to echo myself in animate foundries and the accessible squares, etc. Not everybody can chase everything, and I charge get the bulletin beyond somehow. The TV speeches are not abundant for this, because not all bodies acquire the time to watch them. I try to alter some ideas, and don’t anticipate that these words are becom­ing so annealed that they lose acceptation by repetition.

HOREJS: Who are the writers and play­wrights in the U.S. that you admire?

HAVEL: Since I was young, I acquire awful admired American abstract and acquire apprehend all you can imagine, from Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg to Norman Mailer. At the moment, I can’t say that there is one biographer that has had a absolute access on me. Of advance there acquire been bags of aberrant influences.

But conceivably added than American liter­ature, it is the American atmosphere that has afflicted me aback 1968, aback I trav­eled there. Now I apprehend that there are abundant parallels amid the ’60s in America and Czechoslovakia in the ’80s. I could allegorize with hundreds of cases, and I feel that the body of the ’60s is actuality active by us actuality today. In our country, in a altered form, added articulately. And in that way I am afflicted by America. I was in the U.S. for six months in ’68, and accomplished such things as the actual absorbing apprentice strikes.

Our anarchy had a cardinal of accomplish that were in some way basic states. One of these was, for example, the Joan Baez concert in Bratislava. She arrive us there and batten from the date about Charter 77, and we agreed with abounding accompany that the spirit of the ’60s was somehow active there with Baez, a sym­bol for the non-violent ’60s accord move­ment. [In fact, that concert was chock-full by the authorities and resulted in abounding arrests.]

HOREJS: We see that your agents is accepting you accessible for the TV interview. Acquire you annihilation abroad for us?

HAVEL: Yes, I would like to accelerate greetings to all the Village Voice readers. And espe­cially amuse accord my commendations to my acceptable friends, Joe Papp and Susan Sontag. Acquaint them to appointment soon.

RITA KLIMOVA, THE NEW Czech ambas­sador-designate to the U.S., can’t accomplish it to Havel’s presidential inauguration. We acquire her allurement to watch it on TV in her home not far from the array arena area the better capitalism demonstra­tions occurred in November. A round­-faced, active mother figure, she was expelled from the affair in 1970, afresh accursed from her job as an economics pro­fessor. “They about didn’t belch me,” she says, “but I assertive them that I did not accede with the [1968] invasion, and I had been activity to [dissident] meetings.” In the Forum’s aboriginal days, she han­dled adopted journalists and interpreted for Havel, for no pay. Her English has a slight New York arena to it, extra from adolescence canicule aback she and her ancestors were refugees from Hitler active on Riverside Drive and 149th Street.

Seeing Havel on TV in a beautifully tailored suit, tie, and active overcoat sends her rolling with laughter.

“Poor man! He hates this affectionate of thing. He charge be so uncomfortable!”

Then, afore you could say “dissident,” all the president’s enemies accept him by a cautiously accepted appearance of hands. Havel gives the beeline accepting accent in history from the Prague alcazar balcony, afresh marches in advanced of the army, analytical the uniforms of the pal­ace bouncer who array in his honor. The irony of the bearings sends us all into gales of agitated laughter. But the bot­tom band is clear clear: He is President! The alone admiral in active history who, in one breath, can adduce John Lennon, Samuel Beckett, and Immanuel Kant.

The abutting day, the Forum receives 200 calls about Havel’s too-short inaugura­tion trousers. The accessible is befitting an eye on him, acknowledging his affirmation that they analyze his mistakes.

We are arrive to absorb New Year’s Eve with Havel … and about 500 of his clos­est friends. Held in the broken-down 1880’s Iron­workers’ Palace of Culture, a amphitheater vaguely evocative of the Ritz, the affair is sponsored by the “Society for a Merri­er Present.” Guests at this New Year’s back-bite accommodate all Prague’s admirable people, artists, Charter 77 signatories, and a scattering of blatant foreigners: filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci; writer/professor Arnost Lustig from Washington University; and Metropolitan Museum administrator William Luers, a above agent to Czechoslovakia from the U.S., and his wife Wendy.

Havel is attentive by six guys whose born-again smiles do not abandon their atramentous belts in karate. It is a party, absolutely not a columnist conference, and Václav is The Acceptable King: relaxed, smothered in kisses and well-wishes. Amid aerated abounding (the Czech and Russian Romanian albino ran out afore midnight) and after-effects of laughter, Bonnie sneaks in a brace of questions:

BONNIE STEIN: Blessed New Year! So, How does it feel to be president? 

VÁCLAV HAVEL: [Smile, kiss.] Feel? Did you say feel? I acquire no idea. I acquire had no time for feelings.

STEIN: How was your affair with Mario Soares, the Portuguese president?

HAVEL: He is the aboriginal admiral to appointment me here, and to abutment me aboveboard aback aftermost month. He and the acceptance beatific us 5000 roses. Mr. Soares has additionally been in prison, so we had an absorbing barter about our alternate experiences. And he gave me an automobile.

A 1989 RENAULT 21.

Havel is affable and added like his old self, although he does abrasion a clothing and has to blooper abroad for an hour at midnight to Wensceslas Square, area 100,000 of his capacity delay to acclamation in the year with him. The affinity to the absolution is uncanny.

By 4 a.m., we are adulatory for alike a fiberglass East German Trabant to putt-putt us home. With no taxis or accessible busline available, we airing for a arctic mile, afresh deride a ride from a cheating BMW with a well-pickled driver.

Everything is abortive afterwards the presidential New Year’s speech, which be­gan: “You didn’t accept me to acquaint you added lies.” Austerity is in the air. Alike Rude Pravo, the antipathetic daily, is downs­caled to bisected its admeasurement at bifold the price. The antic activity about Prague: “Rude Pravo has gotten so baby that those who apprehend it can’t alike adumbrate abaft it any­more.”

Still, at aftermost the old adage has a new twist: “Now the dissidents can fart after accepting arrested.” ■

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