The noted Czech dramatist and politician turns in a “strange little book” recounting his years in office.
The castle in question is the one in which Havel (The Art of the Impossible, 1997, etc.) lived while serving for 13 years as the Czech president. To judge by his occasional grumblings, the castle is at times Kafka’s, too. Havel blends formal memoir, vignette, anecdote and notes and memos scribbled out to assistants and ministers, sometimes impatiently (“I’ve written the first draft of the German speech…. As usual I would welcome it if there were no…micro-essays on the margins of the theme.”) He opens his narrative at the Library of Congress and immediately heads down memory lane to his first trip to the U.S. in 1968. Velvet Underground albums in hand, he came home just in time to face down the Soviet tanks that crushed the period of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring; he would be in trouble with one authority or another until 1989 and the Velvet Revolution, whereupon he was pushed into office by popular acclaim. Havel likens this, not entirely positively, to a fairy tale, “if not pure kitsch,” but it is quite clear that he took his duties most seriously in office, wrestling with such problems as how to effect the desired separation of Czechoslovakia into two republics and reconcile his own inclination toward pacifism with supporting NATO intervention in Yugoslavia and, at the end of his final term, the invasion of Iraq. Throughout, Havel is literary without being arch, nicely philosophical and a little worried about the state of the world—and even vexed by such things as American television’s running commercials during the funeral of his friend John Paul II. And then there are always the details of living in a castle: “In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it?”
An illuminating memoir by an admirable writer and leader.