Moral glamour, lacy loges, ossified Politburo types, jigsaw puzzles, goulash, crumbling regimes, beat-up black parkas, old prunes, Vaclav Havel, slim linden trees & the Czech Republic.
I am in the Bohemian National Hall on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In the restaurant, the air is redolent of goulash with rye bread, pork loin with sauerkraut, rainbow trout with spinach. Breathing it in, I am homesick, even though I’m not Czech and only now am preparing for my stay in the Czech Lands.
While I drink my mug of Pilsen and wait for my dinner, I study the photographs that cover the walls here in one of New York’s last remaining social clubs for immigrants. Built in the nineteenth century, the hall originally served Czechs and Slovaks who worked in the nearby cigar factories, and the photos show this history: in one, participants in a 1919 “Welcome to New York” event pose nervously for a photograph; in another, a large wedding reception is presided over by a bride in a traditional wedding crown.
But dominant among the photographs is a large portrait of Vaclav Havel, the playwright, essayist and dissident leader who spent years incarcerated by the Communists, both in prison and under house arrest. Then, as the Soviet Union began to crumble—thirty years ago—Havel became the face of the Velvet Revolution. When the Czech regime collapsed, he would be the first freely elected Czech president in five decades, unanimously chosen by the country’s new transitional parliament.
Indeed, here at the Bohemian Center it’s all Havel, all the time, as I have found while researching a six-month stay in the Czech Republic. I have become familiar with the library, which holds his works in translation; with the website, where Havel-related documents are collected; and I have attended some of the many performances and events remembering the Czech leader.
Havel’s career and legacy, I will learn, is far from simple, built upon a series of reversals that a novelist would hesitate to invent.
Seeing his photograph up there—particularly given the dire state of our own political affairs—I am reminded that there can be courage, even righteousness, in leadership. Subjugated by a regime constructed of lies, Havel insisted upon “living in truth,” and he delivered this truth in two forms: his wildly popular absurdist plays, banned and driven underground, which skewered the pompous nonsense of Communist bureaucrats, and his biting essays, which revealed the emptiness of the crumbling regime, one that no longer even pretended to believe its own propaganda. The essays too described the lives of ordinary people, delineating the precise degree of pretense and self-abasement required to stay below official radar.
For me, the shaggy young president in the sheepskin coat—certainly nothing like the ossified Politburo types he helped oust—is a figure of hope, helping me remember that structures built on lies are inevitably weak, that change for the good can be just around the corner, that we must dare to speak out and to name what we see.
No, it is not hard to understand why Havel is so beloved here at Bohemian Hall, by Czechs and Americans alike. Havel had unquestioned moral authority—even, as David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker, “moral glamour,” and that glamour made him a kind of dissident rock star: news photos show him receiving a standing ovation from the United States Congress, conferring with Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, meeting with all manner of pilgrims from Princess Di to the Rolling Stones.
As The New York Times wrote on Havel’s death in 2011, he “came to personify the soul of the Czech people.”
And yet, I when I arrive in the Czech Republic, this soul—at least as personified by Havel—proves remarkably difficult to locate. Havel’s career and legacy, I will learn, is far from simple, built upon a series of reversals that a novelist would hesitate to invent.
Initially, it is true, my search for Havel seems rather clear cut. My first visit is to the balustrade of the Vltava River, a prime location with a postcard-perfect view of Prague Castle. Here stands Havel’s childhood home, a lovely six-story building with wide windows and lacy loges. I had known that Havel’s family was well-to-do, but I am surprised to learn how truly prominent he was, a son and grandson of diplomats, government ministers, intellectuals; his uncle helped begin the Czech film industry and his architect-entrepreneur grandfather created the art deco Lucerna Complex, which is still one of Prague’s jewels.
Subjugated by a regime constructed of lies, Havel insisted upon “living in truth,” and he delivered this truth in two forms: his wildly popular absurdist plays, banned and driven underground, which skewered the pompous nonsense of Communist bureaucrats, and his biting essays, which revealed the emptiness of the crumbling regime, one that no longer even pretended to believe its own propaganda
Born in 1936, Havel arrived not only into a life of privilege, but also into a time of newfound freedom and dignity for the Czechs. For the previous three hundred years, Czech lands had been dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. German-speaking officials arriving from Vienna did not hide their sense of superiority, or their view that the Czech language was useful mostly for transactions concerning pigs and cows. But in 1918, at the end of the World War, with the empire in collapse and with the aid of America, the Czech First Republic was formed.
Twenty years later, however, Czech freedom was lost once again. In an act that is remembered here—and mentioned today with surprising frequency—as the “Munich Betrayal,” Czechoslovakia was ceded by Western powers to Nazi Germany in the futile hope that Hitler would be appeased.
The Havel family held onto its wealth, and Vaclav’s childhood remained one of privilege, to such an extent, as he would later write, that he felt isolated from others, children and adults alike. He sensed that he was the object of secret ridicule, feeling himself to be “constantly inferior.”
But this problem would end when Vaclav was twelve and the Communists came to power. Private wealth was lost and Prague sank into the gloom of the Communist era, the beautiful old buildings still standing, but shrouded in dreary black scaffolding. As for young Vaclav, his main possession now was the worst class background possible; accordingly, he was denied a university education, trained as a lab assistant and shunted into the army.
The Havel family continued to live on a floor of the building they formerly owned, however, and there are still Havel hangouts in this corner of Prague 1. Here’s the Slavia cafe, now packed with foreign tourists, and nearby is the Balustrade theater where a shy, young Havel began his theater career as a stage hand.
Nearby too—a short walk through the narrow medieval streets—is the long plaza called Wenceslaus Square, where stands the immense black statue of the country’s ninth-century patron saint. It is said that when the Czech Lands are in trouble, the statue will come alive and Wenceslaus will ride to the rescue.
That has not happened yet. But there have been actual heroes in the square, and I am looking for the balcony where, in 1989, Vaclav Havel, an everyman in a beat-up black parka, addressed a euphoric sea of people in the plaza below, all of whom were jingling house keys to signify their desire that that the Communists should go.
I am not sure of the exact location of the balcony, so when I see a young Czech couple studying a plaque on the ground, I go over. The plaque is not to Havel, but to Jan Palach, a student who immolated himself here to protest the 1968 Soviet invasion, which crushed the liberalizing movement known as Prague Spring.
It is said that when the Czech Lands are in trouble, the statue will come alive and Wenceslaus will ride to the rescue.
We stand together looking down at the plaque.
Could they, I ask after a bit, point out the famous balcony, the one from which Havel addressed the crowds during the Velvet Revolution?
But the young couple doesn’t know where such a balcony might be. They turn away.
As it turns out, this lack of interest in Havel is relatively benign. Over six months of conversations, in which I push for views on the former president, the understanding I have brought from America takes a serious beating.
Most of what I get is negative. I hear: “He wasn’t a good politician,” “he didn’t understand economics; he sold the country for a song to former Communists,” “there were other, more practical dissidents who should have become leaders,” “he was too moralistic; he wasn’t so perfect himself.”
I take this last to mean that Havel was a womanizer, as I learn from his friend and biographer Michael Zantovsky. But in this land where, in my experience, the very idea of feminism is generally abhorred, the Czechs wave that off. If his wife, Olga, is OK with it, it’s nobody’s business.
So that’s fine, normal; maybe it even works in Havel’s favor, making him seem like more of a regular guy.
People who have nothing especially bad to say still seem tired of hearing about him. The naming of the Prague airport for Havel, for example: why was that necessary?
There is even dislike of the Havel memorials that stand not only here, but all over the world, which I had considered quite simple and lovely: two garden chairs pulled up to a small wooden table, through which a slim linden tree grows. Each chair is decorated with a lopsided red heart rendered in glass—the symbol Havel used to sign his letters.
The chairs suggest nothing more controversial than the idea that people should talk to each other. But many I meet do not care to see even this modest memorial. No particular reason. They don’t like it, that’s all.
At the old Theatre on the Balustrade, where a musical called Velvet Havel is playing, I keep an eye on projected English surtitles. But I don’t need translation to recognize the former president, appearing as an effete young man in underwear, curled in bed beside a young woman.
Surely, though, those who lived through Communism remember Havel fondly?
Well, not necessarily. Through university students I meet—not Praguers but those coming from all parts of the country—I get reports on the grandparental generation in the rural areas. For them, there is little appreciation of Havel or the reforms he helped to usher in. Rather—as the older people, especially those in rural areas, are always telling their grandchildren—things changed too much. Now there is too much uncertainty and competition. People are more selfish and demanding. They no longer appreciate what they have.
The report of these young people is borne out in surveys. A recent poll showed that thirty-five percent of those over forty remember Communism fondly. For those lacking education, the percentage rises to fifty-three percent.
In Prague, a member of the so called “coffee people”—the intelligentsia—helps me understand this phenomenon: those nostalgic for Communism are “simple” people. They have no ambitions, do not see the value of education and have little use for such things as travel, books or film.
But even in Prague and among “intellectuals,” the former dissident and president does not appear to be particularly beloved. At the old Theatre on the Balustrade, where a musical called Velvet Havel is playing, I keep an eye on projected English surtitles. But I don’t need translation to recognize the former president, appearing as an effete young man in underwear, curled in bed beside a young woman. He is playing a guitar and delivering remarks that sound as if they are taken from his essays and letters: “There is a chasm separating public and private life.” “Czechs never minded being ruled by nobodies; we are servants when it suits us.” “You can’t pretend you don’t see forever.”
Meanwhile, Havel struggles to remove the young woman’s brassiere, which somehow ends up hanging from the guitar.
Instantly recognizable too, for her fluffy white hair, is Havel’s wife, Olga. If Havel is shown as childlike and inept, Olga is portrayed as down-to-earth, true to her working-class background. She likes smoking cigarettes and doing jigsaw puzzles. And she does a slow burn at her husband’s philosophical pronouncements, once remarking, “Workers understand life. Why make a big deal of everything?”
Toward the end of the play, assistants get Havel up, still in in his undershorts, put him into a necktie and jacket and pose him behind a gilt frame to be photographed from the waist up. The point seems clear: the man who became so famous was really an ineffectual little nobody.
In the Balustrade’s pub after the show, Miloš Stedman, the composer and playwright, denies that the play is “negative” toward Havel.
“He was a hero, sure, but he was human, too,” Stedman says. “He was unlike other dissidents who were more practical. We think he should have done better. We don’t adore him.”
Toward the end of the play, assistants get Havel up, still in in his undershorts, put him into a necktie and jacket and pose him behind a gilt frame to be photographed from the waist up.
Many of the criticisms that I hear about Havel are echoed even by loyalists such as Zantovsky, who now heads the Vaclav Havel library in Prague. Havel, denied formal education by the Communists due to his class status, didn’t understand economics well. At a moment when huge amounts of capital had to be transferred from the state to individuals, there was something of a financial free-for-all. Even though the position of president is largely ceremonial, Havel was blamed for not doing more to make the situation work. Too, the man who never wanted to be a politician sometimes wasn’t politic enough: his first European visit was to Germany, for example, an act that the Slovaks, still in the union, took as a slight. Within a few years, Slovakia had split off, so that Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic.
Others have charged that Havel’s rhetoric of truth and love was not what was needed in the chaos of post-Communism, that his ongoing lectures on moralism began to grate. For many, Havel lost support when, a year after Olga died of lung cancer, he remarried. People said it was too soon. And it didn’t help that his new wife, Dasa, a well-known actress, was seventeen years his junior, that she had a pronounced taste for luxury or that she had not been, to say the least, known for her political principles during the Communist era.
Olga, as many saw it and as Havel himself admitted, kept her husband grounded, playing an essential role in creating his image. With her at his side, he could be viewed as a regular Czech. The couple spent time at their cottage—virtually all Czechs, as it turns out, have some sort of country cottage—where they invited friends to traditional pig roasts and sometimes got stupid: snapshots show the Havels and their friends in party mode, trying to create a human pyramid in their low-ceilinged front room and putting on amateur theatricals that require traipsing through the woods in bedsheets.
But If Olga lent Havel an air of simplicity, Dasa, some felt, brought out the latent elitism, even hypocrisy, in the president.
Finally, it seemed to many—and it seems so to me—Havel stayed in power too long. He should have left the politics of the Castle and dialed down the international celebrity. He should have, perhaps, returned to the hilltop cottage that he once called his “existential home,” becoming again an enlightened everyman, helping his fellow Czechs find a moral compass to guide them through an incredibly difficult transition.
But his new wife liked the limelight. And perhaps Havel, too, after so many years of obscurity and deprivation, relished returning to the prominence of his youth.
Finally, in leaving the presidency in 2003, he seemed to understand how people felt. In his farewell address, the man who, from boyhood, had seen himself as a friendless oddity expressed appreciation for those who had supported him. He also offered apologies, to those he had disappointed and to those who “have simply found me hateful.”
The reality of foreign surroundings always challenges your assumptions. For Americans, I come to understand, Havel—even the Czech Republic itself—began and ended with the Cold War, the forty-year fight against the Soviet Bloc. It follows, then, that we are content to remain frozen forever in the Hollywood ending: the courageous and righteous young leader up there on the balcony in his working-man’s parka, the jubilant crowds down below, ringing their keys.
How we love to stand and applaud this great champion! We, too, as we like to think, are—always have been and always will be—fighters for freedom.
It was a great ending. Especially since we weren’t around to witness the messy and dispiriting aftermath.
The couple spent time at their cottage…where they invited friends to traditional pig roasts and sometimes got stupid: snapshots show the Havels and their friends in party mode, trying to create a human pyramid in their low-ceilinged front room and putting on amateur theatricals that require traipsing through the woods in bedsheets.
All right, maybe Americans are a little naïve and self-centered, focusing mainly on how we won the Cold War and defeated Communism, which—the nostalgia of elderly Czechs notwithstanding—brought about the murder, imprisonment and repression of millions.
But—is there anything really wrong with our love for a hero like Havel?
Indeed, there is, argues Czech journalist Jan Čulik. Americans’ ongoing idealization of an “obsolete image of Havel” only points up our ignorance of Czech politics, especially “the ongoing conflict between the affluent Praguers and the poorer inhabitants of the rest of the country.” This ignorance, Čulik writes, has the effect of “kindling anti-American sentiment and helping to drive many Czechs further into Putin’s arms.”
It is a threat that many in Prague take seriously. For the city is crawling with Russians: thirty-seven thousand hold residency permits, and more Russian agents are said to operate out of the fortress-like embassy than in any other Western city. Meanwhile, Czech president Miloš Zeman does not bother to hide his courtship of Vladimir Putin.
Before learning all this, I had planned one final visit—OK, pilgrimage—to the north of the country, where I had hoped to locate the little cottage called Hradecek that was Havel’s retreat.
But now I’m wondering whether I should make this trip. Do I really want to be one of the stupid Americans, idealizing an “obsolete” image? Haven’t I learned anything in my half-a-year stay here?
Puzzling, I write one of my Czech friends with whom I have discussed Havel’s essays. Am I foolish to go up there? After all, it will be a long day on the train. And I’m not even sure where the cottage is. It’s too small to be on a map, and the internet is vague as to its location.
My friend understands my question and gives me an oblique answer: “It is an interesting fact that you cannot pronounce Havel’s name in the Czech street today. Either you hate him, so you don’t have reason to pronounce it, or you will blush because to declare affection for him and the ideas he represents is to look like a silly dreamer.”
And he offers me an explanation of Havel and the way he is remembered that I have not yet heard: “Partly,” he says, “it is our sense of smallness. As long he was ‘everyman,’ people felt safe…but when somebody who used to be small makes it to the top, you feel ashamed, that you could have done better. It leads to cynicism, which is now a dominant feature in Czechia.”
“The cottage you mention,” my friend adds, “is dear to me, sort of magic, hidden, as if you had to be first initiated to get there.”
Then. Dare I view myself as among the initiate?
I am aboard the Bohumil Hrabal, travelling north through the springtime countryside from Prague to Trutnov, near the Polish border. It’s a high-speed express, named for one of the Czech Republic’s beloved, absurdist, gently sexist authors. Undoubtedly Hrabal has received this honor due to his most famous work, Closely Watched Trains, set in a country station where the pace is slow, yet not without pomp and ritual. Too, there is a certain amount of delectation; a young woman clerk, for example, ends up with official station stamps covering her bare backside. It is an entertainment for a slow day that she does not seem to have particularly minded.
Having read the novel and seen the film that followed, I have developed an appreciation for even the most insignificant stations and their masters. Now, as I ride along, I keep a lookout for these officials, crisp in their light-blue uniforms and red peaked caps, emerging to stand at attention as the mighty express speeds past.
Also travelling on the Bohumil Hrabal is crew of tanned and hearty young people. All, boys and girls alike, are dressed in olive-drab uniforms and carrying matching green backpacks. All are in a merry mood; it turns out that they are students at forestry school going home for a holiday. The young men in the seats near me are glad to try out their English and to explain their work as foresters. However, we do not progress very well, given my little Czech and their little English. I try to ask whether they prune the trees. But “prune” comes up on my Czech-British-English dictionary app as “stupid old fellow” and prompts general hilarity. Old prune, I guess. No. That’s not them. Thankfully, they will never be old prunes.
I mention that I am travelling up from Prague to visit Havel’s country cottage. This elicits no response.
“Vaclav Havel?” I prompt. “The former president?”
“I hate politics,” one of my seatmates says.
“What about Havel?” I persist. “What do people think of him?”
“He put the Germans over us,” someone says from the next aisle.
“And the EU,” someone else adds.
“OK. But—were people here glad when Communism ended?”
It is a question no one seems to understand.
It was a great ending. Especially since we weren’t around to witness the messy and dispiriting aftermath.
I part from the foresters in Trutnov. The cottage may be in walking distance, but I don’t know which way to walk. There are cabs at the station, but will these young drivers have heard of the cottage of a best-forgotten leader?
I pick the oldest of the drivers and show him my notebook, where I have worked out in Czech, “Can you take me to the cottage of Vaclav Havel?” His recognition is obvious, and he seems to approve. Have I stumbled across a Havel loyalist? Or does he simply like the idea of getting paid to drive out into the country on a lovely May day? He jots down the price for the round trip and we are off, quickly out of the town, passing the immense and still-inhabited Soviet-era housing projects that dominate the outskirts. Then, about four miles out into the country, we turn up a one-lane, winding road into the hills. The road is so narrow that there would be no room for two vehicles to pass. I know that dignitaries such as Madelyn Albright and Kofi Annan made the trek to Hradecek, and I shudder to imagine them, along with their security details, negotiating these blind curves. For myself, I am just willing that no young farmer with a truckload of hogs is looking at his phone as he hurtles down to town.
Safely at the top, however, I step out into a sweet breeze. Purple azaleas are blooming. Birds are singing. Nothing can be seen but rolling green hills. It’s heaven up here.
And yes, this is the place, marked by a few lopsided Havel hearts, some in wicker, some in stone. Here, too, is a weathered row of candles, left in front of the fence by those who traveled here to pay their respects in December 2011. For it is here that Havel, tended by a nurse, died on a chill winter morning. A chain smoker, he had battled lung disease for years. But now, Zantovsky has written, there was something else, finally, a “loss of will” and an end to the “fighting spirit that had characterized him for most of his life.”
My driver is leaning on his car, taking in the sun and having a smoke. A split-rail fence surrounds the property, but the gate is padlocked. The driver gestures airily for me to crawl though. Another wave says, Take your time.
Once inside, I look around, trying to see the Havels and their life. Surely it would have been through this same gate that, on cold nights, Olga took mugs of hot soup to the secret police who stood guard on the narrow road in front. It would have been into these woods—looming behind the house—that Vaclav snuck to hide carbon copies of his manuscripts, sometimes pranking the police by jauntily walking back around and up to his own front door.
Here, too, is the barn where theatrical productions were mounted during the years of Havel’s house arrest; one such was the play The Audience, set in a nearby brewery where Havel was required by the regime to work.
And here is the modest little house. It is at least a hundred years old, a peasant house, un-renovated, with a high-pitched roof against winter snow, and small square windows to keep in the heat. This is not, I am quite sure, what readers of The New York Times obituary envisioned when they saw that the former Czech president died at his “country home.”
Peeking through the window, I see a table covered with a simple checked cloth. Here, before they became famous, before everything changed, the Havels lived rather quietly. Olga did her jigsaw puzzles; her husband, meanwhile, looked over the hills and thought about the nature of a life built upon falsehood.
Too, there is a certain amount of delectation; a young woman clerk, for example, ends up with official station stamps covering her bare backside. It is an entertainment for a slow day that she does not seem to have particularly minded.
What is it exactly? What is it made of? Was the individual, in fact, entirely powerless?
Using the essay form, invented for those trying—en essayant—to understand, he wrote: “The crust presented by the life of lies is strong. As long as it seals off hermitically the entire society, it appears to be made of stone.
“But the moment someone breaks through in one place…the whole crust seems to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.”
At a time when many existed in quiet despair, Havel dared to break through that filthy crust, revealing the hollowness beneath.
This idea—that of breaking through the crust of lies so that a corrupt regime can only, eventually, collapse in upon itself—is one we must all remember.
W hen I return to New York City, I attend the annual celebration of the Velvet Revolution at the Bohemian National Hall. One of the events is a production of Havel’s short playVaclav Havel The Audience. It is being performed by two Czech actors for a festive, standing-room-only crowd in the Bohemian Hall’s grand, chandeliered ballroom.
In the play, a young dissident called Vanek, who bears a strong resemblance to the real-life Havel, is under house arrest near Trutnov and required to work in a brewery. Recent visits from the authorities have impressed the brewery’s manager that Vanek must be someone important—for one thing, he’s said to be a playwright, in with the Prague theater crowd—and the manager has called his semi-prisoner in for a chat.
At first, the manager expresses friendly feelings. He pops and downs bottle after bottle of beer, and, between loud trips to the toilet, he shares his own, rather uncomplicated, philosophy: “Everything is fucked up!” However, he’s thought of a way to make things better. Could Vanek —in return for a nice warm job in the warehouse—get some of his good-looking actress friends up here?
Vanek could tell the actresses, “I got this buddy back there. He’s a regular brewery hick, but he calls it the way it is.”
“For one damn evening!” the manager pleads. “I’ll be OK after that; everything’s gonna be different after that!”
I know the play. Before I went to the Czech Republic, I laughed my head off reading it, as does the crowd here in the Bohemian Hall.
He pops and downs bottle after bottle of beer, and, between loud trips to the toilet, he shares his own, rather uncomplicated, philosophy: “Everything is fucked up!”
But now, as The Audience goes on, I see something else, something sadder: it strikes me that the play, written back in 1978, while Havel was relatively unknown, is remarkably prophetic, a vision of what his own future would hold.
Does the man, whose childhood was an agonized prison of privilege, already know that, despite losing his wealth and position, despite standing up to authoritarianism with unquestioned courage, he will never be accepted, not really, by his more matter-of-fact countrymen?
As the play goes on, we see the manager, drunker and drunker, begin to express his envy of Vanek, then hatred. Though the dissident is under surveillance by the state and forced to hoist heavy barrels in a freezing brewery all day, he is still more important and privileged than the manager will ever be: “All I’m good for,” the manager accuses, “is to be the manure your damn principles grow out of!”
“Principles!” the manager snarls knowingly. “You’re making a killing on them!”
The crowd in the Bohemian Hall howls with laughter.
Diane Simmons is a PhD in English literature and a professor of English at City University of New York. She is the author of several books of prize-winning fiction, criticism and non-fiction, and is a former Fulbright Fellow to the Czech Republic. Her recent essay, “Nobody Goes to the Gulag Anymore,” appeared in Missouri Review and can be seen on her website: dianesimmonswrites.com. This story was a finalist in Nowhere’s Fall 2019 Travel Writing Contest.