An insightful biography of the unlikely leader of the Velvet Revolution.
In his first book written in English, diplomat and translator Zantovsky, Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James, chronicles the eventful life of playwright, political activist and Czech president Václav Havel (1936-2011). As Havel’s press secretary and adviser, Zantovsky admits his affection for his friend, but he presents a balanced, candid portrait of his subject’s personality, achievements and inner demons. Born to privilege, Havel came of age in communist Czechoslovakia, witness to oppression and injustice that intensified after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968. His political critiques found their way into his plays, but he struggled with “the question of a passive participation in evil.” His characters were often weak and flawed, reflecting, Zantovsky believes, Havel’s view of himself in the 1960s and ’70s, when he lived the sybaritic life of a celebrity. Although he felt driven “to do extraordinary things,” Havel’s “strong sense of order and harmony” resisted the messy process of revolution, and his excessive courtesy tempered his tolerance for conflict. Nevertheless, in 1989, emerging from an increasingly active resistance movement that resulted in his imprisonment, he led Czechoslovakia’s peaceful transformation from totalitarianism to democracy and served as president for four terms. “Being in power makes me permanently suspicious of myself,” he once remarked, though he reveled in the theatricality of his role. Installed in the dreary, cavernous Palace Castle, he commissioned an Oscar-winning designer to create new uniforms for the Castle Guard. Sky blue with white and red trim, they “looked a little like costumes from a Franz Lehár operetta.” Sustained by alcohol, cigarettes and a cornucopia of uppers and downers, by 1998, Havel’s physical condition weakened, along with his role in the newly formed Czech Republic, after Slovakia became independent. By then, though, he had become a global celebrity, the darling of liberals, reformers and intellectuals.
Zantovsky brings an intimate perspective to this impressive biography of a man and history of a beleaguered nation.