February 2015

Will Mawhood

nonfiction

Havel: A Life by Michael Zantovsky

"Truth is just as complicated and multiform as everything else in the world -- the magnet, the telephone, Impressionism, the magnet." -- from The Garden Party by Václav Havel

The Polish expatriate writer and poet Sławomir Mrożek, who died last year, once wrote a little story called "The Elephant." It is, like many of his works, a surrealist fable of just a few pages, deadpan and bizarre. To summarise briefly: the Communist director of a Polish zoo, piously determined to ensure that the state's money not be spent on frivolous items, assures the authorities that his employees will make an elephant from rubber, thus meaning there will be no need to provide an expensive authentic one. The zoo's workers, tasked with completing the project in an unreasonably speedy time and finding that rubber alone does not provide sufficient buoyancy, resort to inflating it with gas, and the result is a gray, wobbling thing that might, in some lights, from a distance, to the uninformed, look a little like an elephant. Explaining its decidedly limited mobility by hurriedly placing a sign before its cage announcing "Very sluggish. Hardly moves"; they decide to leave it at that. The conclusion is a brilliant set-piece: while a visiting party of schoolchildren are attempting to reconcile their teacher's textbook explanation ("an elephant weighs between four and six thousand kilos") with the seemingly unrelated creature before them, the elephant is swept into the air by a strong gust of wind. Some would have left it there, a story reproaching political reality with slapstick knockabout. But the last sentence refocuses our attention on the human consequences. We learn that the youngsters who experienced this have gone off the rails, drinking and neglecting their studies. The last sentence has the ring of a punchline, one can imagine. Mrożek breaking off, regarding us in an amused way, lengthening the inter-sentence pause for just a bit longer than is strictly necessary, before telling us "and they no longer believe in elephants."

This, to my mind -- and I'm just an interested outsider, so please treat my opinions with appropriate scepticism -- is pretty much the perfect Communist story; despite being barely three pages, it gets so much: the earnestness, the fake-earnestness, the corner-cutting, the odd way that forced equality miniaturises but intensifies feelings of one-upmanship... Most of all, it shows the squabbling with reality that was at the core of the most sweeping totalitarian system ever built on good intentions. It lacks bloodshed, bleakness, aphorisms. But it gets the way it fucks with your head, ruins you for anything better. Truth is the victim. Anything can be solved by filling it with gas and mislabelling it.

I've read Michael Zantovsky's biography of Václav Havel, Havel: A Life, and a fair number of the latter's own writings over the last couple of months, and Mrożek's story popped into my head at least every few pages. Havel was the truth guy. That, to me, is a more accurate description than playwright, dissident, politician, humanitarian, charlatan, or any of the other attempted labels, all of which leave out too much or include too much. It's hard not to be struck, when reading this uneven, irritating, but frequently illuminating biography by just how unwaveringly Havel obeyed the moral arbiter in his head: he willingly entered prison for four years (at a time when he could easily have taken up the offer of an academic position in the US) was the author of implicitly dissenting dramatic works and openly dissenting political works at a time and place when dissent meant quite probably having your life ruined. In his personal life, he was also a compulsive truth-teller, although in perhaps a less attractive manner: admitting his many infidelities to his wife, Olga, who was tolerant but understandably not terribly happy about them. He did not drop the habit even after a profoundly unexpected series of events brought him to political office: this was a man who decided, at the same time as he was straining to keep Czechoslovakia united, to close a weapons factory in the Slovak half of the nation and berate its inhabitants about their treatment of its Roma minority. Zantovsky contends that this is also what led him to enthusiastically back -- and in many ways, develop -- the principle of "liberal interventionism," something that resulted in Havel supporting bombing campaigns against Yugoslavia, and the Iraq War (although the second of these he fairly quickly switched to opposing).

He retains a fascination at a time when many of the other prominent figures of 1989 have come to seem like nothing more than workaday politicians with jarringly heroic pasts. Much of this, of course, stems from the fact that he was a creative soul -- a playwright, and a very good one at points -- who events somehow thrust into Prague Castle. The resulting sense of a world turned upside-down was perhaps best expressed, ironically, by a Czech nationalist politician, quoted by Zantovsky, who lamented: "the spectre of greasy and weird-looking advisers... the ruler in a jester's hat with bells, a megalomaniac and an artist with a chip on his shoulder." It was perhaps less bizarre than it seems: although Havel is most frequently described as an absurdist, his was an absurd with borders and beginnings and endings. None of his plays can stand alone as statements without the implicit setting of a repressive, but comical regime, one taped together by ideology and kickbacks and propped against the bulk of the Soviet Union. In, I don't know, Kafka or Beckett, for example, we are on trial every moment, everywhere, victims of a preposterous and cruel universe; in Havel, the absurd actions -- e.g. having a garden party for liquidators (The Garden Party), inventing a staggeringly complex new language for inter-departmental communication (The Memorandum) -- are the result of absurd conditions; somewhere offstage we can hear Havel laughing "what a silly thing to do." This is probably for the best: it's not that easy to imagine Beckett effectively leading a protest march, notwithstanding his dedication of a play to Havel, and Kafka himself would have made an even more vacillating and gloom-sunk president than the "philosopher-king" himself. And yet despite his political engagement, Havel was never an ideologue, which seems to be principally because he was suspicious of anything that could cover for his own perception and conscience. As he put it in his 1977 essay "The Power of the Powerless":

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves.

This can be used to take down neoliberals just as easily as Communists, and indeed, Havel did clash very frequently with the arch-Thatcherite Václav Klaus, who has served as prime minister or president for almost the whole of the Czech Republic's existence. Havel's true concern, shown in his repeated berating of Czech citizens for their apathy and consumerism following independence, was to ensure that Communism hadn't ruined them for better beliefs, that there still might be elephants, even if we've been let down before.

Michael Zantovsky certainly can claim to be one of those who knew Havel best for the longest -- at various points his friend, press secretary, translator and speechwriter. He was there again and again when it mattered: at the Prague Spring, during the Velvet Revolution -- a kind of miraculously multi-skilled odd-job man. In the preface, Zantovsky confesses that he was, in a sense, in love with Havel, but contends that "being in love with the subject of one's biography is not necessarily the best qualification for writing it, for it brings with it the risks of hagiography, lack of perspective and distortion of facts" -- all of which Havel: A Life does indeed suffer from at points. Zantovsky claims that he will try to bring his psychological training (as well as the bewildering variety of other jobs he has practised listed above, he seems also to be a psychologist) to bear on Havel. The only problem is that Havel isn't a patient, he's a friend, and not only that but one brought to power by the same set of events (Zantovsky was a member, and briefly leader, of a centre-right Czech party for a number of years in the previous decade), and thus one who seems to be in the same boat. Most of the criticism directed at Havel could also be applied to Zantovsky, and this may explain the defensive, partial tone that detracts from the biography.

The book starts off, jarringly, with a description of Havel's funeral -- securing his importance and justifying the existence of the biography, which doesn't seem entirely necessary. After detailing the scenes of mourning in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and across the world, he includes an odd paragraph suggesting it would be illustrative of -- I don't know, something at least -- to compare the reaction to Havel's passing in his country with the death of Kim Jong Il, which occurred the day before. Fine, there is a coincidence in the date; but what does this prove exactly? Havel was a better, less repressive, arbitrarily cruel leader than Kim Jong Il? Well, true, but one could say the same about the vast majority of good or bad politicians to have held office in modern times. This is just one of many details that struck me as not thought through, written in a hurry, as though Zantovsky was simply cycling through his memories, noting them down and annotating them more or less as they struck him.

This rather slapdash quality is an impression that continues throughout the book, with jumbled formulations, clumping faux-jocularity (we read a couple of pages apart that the parliament was "so terrified of popular vengeance that they would have elected Al Capone as tax collector" and "so used to taking orders that they would have elected Dracula if told to do so by the government") and sentences of truly confounding logic: of Olga's possible emotional reaction to an occasion in the late '70s when Havel was arrested at the apartment of another woman, he speculates "what graver proof of disloyalty is there than your husband getting arrested in another woman's flat, and for that matter, not even for adultery." Are we to assume that it would have been some consolation to her if he had been arrested for adultery rather than political dissent, then? And that would of course be assuming (wrongly) that adultery was a crime in Communist Czechoslovakia. Later, we hear that in Havel's late play Leaving "Kafka's ghost looms large [...] though his name or work is never invoked." Do many Kafkaesque works directly invoke Kafka? Would they be particularly Kafkaesque if they did? The Velvet Revolution was "impossibly velvet"; America "responded massively" to Havel. Space restrictions prevent me from continuing, but there are a great number more logical pileups, all contributing to the general sense of a rush job.

Similarly annoying is Zantovsky's tendency to annotate with belittling adjectival phrases people who he disapproves of or disagrees with, darting in before we can form our own opinion. We are told nothing about a journalist who had the temerity to criticise Leaving apart from the fact that he is a 9/11 denier -- he's a nutter, ignore him, the implication seems to be; Klement Gottwald, the post-World War II dictator of Czechoslovakia is "the syphilitic Klement Gottwald"; about the death of an elderly and reputedly tedious politician during a meeting around the time of the Velvet Revolution, he comments, in a rather acidic fashion, that probably no one noticed. I'm not claiming that any of these people are admirable or that we should necessarily listen to their opinion, merely that I'd appreciate the chance to make up my own mind -- which is most of these cases would not be favourable anyway: I was pretty sure that Gottwald was a wrong-'un before I found out that he was syphilitic. He makes regular claims about the way "the people" felt, and how their mass reactions show wisdom or foolishness depending on the situation, which seems to risk smearing them into a gray, coherent blur, in the same way the Communists did. He's also often weasel-wordy about projects he supports: about a proposed pan-Czechoslovak party he had proposed in the early '90s, he appears to suggest that it would cater for everyone apart from idiots and scoundrels: "[provide] a home for everyone who continued to support the idea of a Czech and Slovak federation as a democratic, secular, humanistic, modern and cultured country." So no space for the country's theocratic, medievalist philistines then?

More troublingly, there's a tendency to vaunt his access to Havel to shut down lines of questioning he disagrees with or finds uninteresting, which one could perhaps connect with Zantovsky's establishment status (he's currently the Czech Ambassador to the United Kingdom). To choose just one example: "people who knew Havel only from things written about him in the Communist press or at best from his plays could be forgiven for wondering what gave him the sense that he was equipped to lead a revolution or become president. Those who knew him well wondered why anyone should ask such questions." If you knew what I knew you wouldn't ask doesn't seem enough. He's similarly abrupt with any implication that there may have been a deal done between the Civic Forum (the dissident group Havel led) and the Communist government regarding the handover of power, brusquely pointing out that no evidence has so far come to light and thus it's a ridiculous suggestion. Zantovsky probably couldn't write in any other way about this, bearing in mind his status and perspective, and may well be right, but it means that we feel pushed and pulled rather than guided.

The biography goes very easy on Havel post-Velvet Revolution, a time when his moral authority -- and, on a number of occasions, his judgement -- seemed to be slipping from him, at least at home, undermined by a series of media scandals and a seeming tone-deafness to popular feeling. This happened to such an extent that, at points, a majority of Czechs wanted their former hero to resign as president (he served as the head of state of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1993, and of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003). His domestic troubles filtered out enough that John Keane chose to subtitle his biography of Havel, published in 2000, "A Political Tragedy in Six Acts," and Havel himself conceded about this period that, despite his best intentions, "the Castle swallowed me whole." Havel's political endeavours while president included preparing the country for NATO and EU membership, bringing side projects such as the Visegrád Group and Forum 2000 to fruition, and loudly advocating intervention in Yugoslavia; in his personal life, he was similarly frantically active, preoccupied with making his second marriage work, ensuring Dagmara, his new wife, an official constitutional role, giving an enormous number of speeches at various locations around the globe, as well as redecorating Prague Castle, aesthetically steamrollered by the Communists (a surprisingly constant preoccupation). To Zantovsky, all of them were the right thing to do at the right time, and have been borne out by history.

Zantovsky slips into a fond triviality in this section. Readers may not be enthralled or enlightened especially by learning that Shirley Temple Black, at one time US ambassador to the Czech Republic, had a habit of giving Havel peculiar and unwanted gifts; we get tangential stories about Ted Kennedy falling over and the fact that, meeting Paul Newman, Havel felt like "a child in a sweet shop," and odd irrelevant little jabs, such as a reference to Edward Norton "acting intellectually superior to everyone present" at a Prague viewing of The People vs. Larry Flynt. Zantovsky's conclusion about this complex, in many ways disappointing, stretch of his life has an impatient tone to it: "it might be asked whether another man or woman in his position and with the same limited constitutional powers could have done as much or more." One may or may not agree with this, and it must be admitted that the comparison he urges between the modern-day Czech Republic and its neighbors, and countries like Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus that did not or could not follow the same path is a telling one. But the one-sidedness of the story combined with the frequent ungainliness of its telling makes it an unsatisfactory read, as though we are being prepared for a test.

It's not all bad, far from it. Zantovsky is sharp on his creative work, bringing his psychological training to bear in a largely effective manner. His comment that in his early plays Havel is "trying his convictions on for size" is the best kind of hindsight. He's also willing, to an extent, to question Havel's womanizing and the healthiness of his relationship with Olga, although this is fairly limited, and largely extends to his extracurricular activities in the '70s and '80s, a curious example of his tendency to be harder on Havel when he was confronting a totalitarian regime, rather than when he was rich, famous and celebrated; he nails his simultaneously needy and patronizing tone toward his wife, Olga, in his celebrated Letters to Olga, which were written during his four-year stretch in prison in the early '80s, pointing out that he sounds at points like a spoilt child who wants everything his own way. After this, disappointingly, he reverts to his usual knowing-better tone, sweeping aside further quibbles with an earthy appeal to common sense -- "the proof, after all, is in the pudding and this particular pudding still tasted good after fifty years." Well, yes, perhaps, but you don't win arguments with clichés, and mere longevity surely doesn't prove the happiness of a relationship.

He has a beady eye for the little forgotten details that suddenly shift an era into comprehensibility: the differences between the Prague Spring and the far more tuned-in, but lower-stakes disorder in Western Europe and the US are somehow irrelevantly, somehow perfectly summed up by the observation that 1968 in the Czechoslovak capital was soundtracked not by "Street Fighting Man" but by the Bee Gees' fluffy, wistful "Massachusetts" (a favourite of Havel's). I understood more why the half-hearted dissolution of Czechoslovakia was not resisted more strongly by either side after Zantovsky's emphasis that all in government had been watching Yugoslavia out of the corner of their eyes, another ethnic confederation -- albeit a much more complicated one -- that at that time was collapsing inwards, with hideous results.

In general, though, I felt disappointed, under-stretched or annoyed by this biography more frequently than I felt illuminated by it. This is Michael Zantovsky's Havel, sure, and that's a valuable document of a brave and significant person by another person who doubtless is also brave and significant in his way, but to me, you'd get more of Havel from reading a couple of plays, a selection of his political writings, or even his strange, dishevelled sort-of-autobiography To the Castle and Back, which alternates between interview questions, personal musings and instructions to his staff. It's hard to write a bad biography about Vaclav Havel, in however dedicated a fashion that one tries -- the quality of his writings and the quality of his life are the rarest of materials -- but Michael Zantovsky has certainly managed to chop it up and sew it together in a manner that is frequently strange and confounding, shielding the results from our critical eyes as often as possible. A strange treatment of the man who championed "living in truth."

Slavoj Žižek has commented, in his usual tone of strident incoherence, that Havel appeared "blind to the fact that his own opposition to Communism was rendered possible by the utopian dimension generated and sustained by Communist regimes." This seems to me like rubbish -- unless of course the point is that it is hard to be opposed to something if that thing does not exist, which is a reasonable point, although an odd one to make in such a querulous manner. It's rubbish because this line of argument simply leads us into a boring Marxian hall of mirrors and heartlessly disregards Thomas More: utopianism did not start or end with Communism, and its collapse does not mean that idealism and conscience have now been robbed of the oxygen they need to exist. Opposition to Communism was in some ways a side issue for Havel, a mere quibble in a much larger quarrel, and that's why he did not behave after 1989 as though the war had been definitively won, did not let up his criticism of cynicism, selfishness, globalisation, materialism. This is why I think Havel mattered: he believed we should not put up with gray rubber filled with gas regardless of who was presenting it as the real thing, and unusually for an idealist, he was briefly in a position to sort of maybe do something about it in some small corner of the world. Whether he was right or wrong remains moot, but he was at least consistent in his advocacy of truth as he understood it -- even very late in life, he can be found bemoaning the EU's habitual language of obfuscation, even though the Czech Republic's membership of the union was something he strongly supported: in a self-referential note he bemoaned its tendency to communicate in "administrative ptydepe that can be understood only by professional bureaucrats, not citizens." There's a touching faith in this, suggesting that living in truth can only exist along with belief in people's intelligence.

Many governments in Europe and its environs (most especially in Central Europe, and most strikingly of all in Hungary) seem to be turning away from liberal democracy; much of the Czech Republic's governing class are making eyes at Russia, most clearly Miloš Zeman, its current prime minister and a former member of Civic Forum. This troubled moment for the region and the world seems the perfect time for a searching, smart, critical biography of Havel, one willing to ask questions and make a case for his importance in a changed Central Europe, a changed world -- one that is no longer content with democracy taking victory laps. Havel: A Life, despite all of Zantovsky's insider knowledge, is too slapdash and defensive to fit the bill, which is a damned shame: right or wrong, Havel deserves better.

Havel: A Life by Michael Zantovsky
Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802123152
512 pages