In an eloquent and meditative treatment that reads more like a political essay than a biography, Keane (The Ram of God, 1996, etc.) presents the life of Czech President Vaclav Havel as one of the tragic stories of 20th-century European history.
Havel was known in the West for many years as a playwright and human-rights activist who resisted the Soviet-backed Czechoslovakian Communist regime and participated in the failed Prague Spring of 1968. Elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he was unable to prevent its dissolution into the Czech and Slovakian republics in 1992; now he faces ill health, political eclipse, and calls for his resignation. With the dramatic ups and downs of his life story, Keane sees Havel as a tragic hero, but nonetheless "among the most distinguished political figures of our century": Havel's relentless advocacy of democracy throughout his life (most of which was lived under Nazi and Communist regimes) strikes the author as emblematic of the 20th-century's "quiet revolution" of democracy. Giving his story a dramatic form, Keane divides Havel's life from his birth in 1936 through his current political decline into six phases, each of which marks a stage in Havel's literary and political development and a different stage in the history of his country. These are marked by dramatic high and low points: among the high points are Havel's role in the Charter 77 human-rights initiative, his release in 1983 after four years in prison, his inauguration as president in 1989, and his leadership of the Czech Republic's bid for entrance into the European Union. Among the low points are the Soviet invasion of 1968, Havel's persecution at the hands of the Communists, and the "Velvet Divorce" of 1992 that split Czechoslovakia in two. Keane concludes that Havel "taught the world much more about power, the powerful and the powerless than most of his twentieth-century rivals."
A thoughtful review of Havel's important contribution to the development of modern Europe.