Source: The New York Review of Books www.nybooks.com /
Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson.
We publish here excerpts from Václav Havel’s book Disturbing the Peace, whose origins are described as follows by Paul Wilson, Havel’s translator:
When the Czech journalist Karel Hvízdala first proposed the idea of a book-length interview to Václav Havel in 1985, Hvízdala was living in West Germany, Havel in Prague, and neither of them could visit the other. Havel liked the idea because it would give him a chance to reflect on his life as he approached fifty; he accepted. They worked on the book over the next year, communicating by underground mail. According to Hvízdala, the first approach, in which Havel sent written responses to the questions, didn’t satisfy either of them: the answers were too much like essays. So Hvízdala sent Havel a batch of about fifty questions, and between Christmas and the New Year, Havel shut himself in a borrowed flat and came out with eleven hours of recorded answers. Hvízdala transcribed and edited them, then sent the manuscript back to Havel with some supplementary questions (“for drama,” Hvízdala says). Havel prepared a final version with some new material in it, completing it in early June 1986.—P.W.
On August 21, 1968, when Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia, you were in North Bohemia. What did you do during those first-hectic days of the occupation?
That night I happened to be in the town of Liberec with my wife and Jan Tríska;1 we were staying with friends, and we remained for that whole dramatic week, because our friends brought us into the Liberec resistance, if I can call it that. We worked in the broadcasting station there. I wrote a commentary every day, Jan read them on the air, and we even appeared on television, in a studio that was rigged up on Jested hill. We were also part of the National Committee chairman’s permanent staff.2 We helped coordinate various local activities; I wrote speeches for the chairman, and I even wrote lengthy declarations for the District Committee of the Communist Party, the District National Committee, the District Committee of the National Front, the town National Committee, and so on, which were then broadcast to the population over the street loudspeakers and pasted up everywhere on the walls.
That week was an experience I’ll never forget. I saw Soviet tanks smash down arcades on the main square and bury several people in the rubble. I saw a tank commander start shooting wildly into the crowd. I saw and experienced many things, but what affected me most powerfully was that special phenomenon of solidarity and community which was so typical of that time. People would bring food and flowers and medicine to the radio station, regardless of whether we needed them or not. When Tríska didn’t broadcast for a couple of hours, the station was bombarded with telephone calls asking if we were all right. The radio building was ringed with huge transport trucks loaded down with large cement blocks to prevent us from being taken over. Factories sent us passes that would enable us to conceal ourselves among the workers if we found ourselves in any personal danger.
Clearly, because of the bloody events I’ve mentioned, Liberec was not occupied by a Soviet garrison for that whole period; the troops simply passed through it. This was also why the spontaneous popular resistance in Liberec was able to grow to greater dimensions, and assume more forms, than it could in towns and cities that were occupied. Anti-occupation folklore soon turned the town into a single enormous artifact. There were endless ideas on how to foil the occupation. And things were never more efficient than they were then. The print shop could put out a book in two days, and all kinds of enterprises were able to do almost anything right away.
I remember a typical story: The scourge of Liberec and environs was a gang of about a hundred tough young men called “Tramps” who would go on weekend forays into the countryside. For a long time, the town officials hadn’t been able to put a stop to them. The leader was a fellow they called the Pastor. Shortly after the invasion, the Pastor showed up at the chairman’s office in the town hall and said, “I’m at your disposal, chief.” The chairman was somewhat nonplussed, but he decided to give the gang a trial job: “All right,” he said, “tonight I want you to take down all the street signs, so the occupiers can’t find their way around. It’s not appropriate to have the police do that.” The Pastor nodded, and the next morning all the street signs in Liberec were neatly stacked in front of the town hall steps. Not a single one had been damaged. And there they stayed until they could be put up again.
The Pastor then asked for another job. And thus arose a strange collaboration, one result of which was that for two days members of the Pastor’s gang wore armbands of the auxiliary guard, and three-man patrols walked through the town: a uniformed policeman in the middle with two long-haired Tramps on either side. This gang also did twenty-four-hour sentry duty at the town hall. They guarded the mayor, and checked everyone who entered the building. There were some poignant scenes: for instance, the whole town hall staircase was packed with these fellows on duty, playing their guitars and singing “Massachusetts,” which was a kind of world anthem for hippies then. I saw the whole thing in a special light, because I still had fresh memories of crowds of similar young people in the East Village in New York, singing the same song, but without the tanks in the background.
I’m not one of those people who somehow got mentally stuck in that week of occupation and have then spent the rest of their lives reminiscing about what it was like. And I have no intention of romanticizing that period either. I only think that, taken all together, it made for a unique phenomenon which to this day, as far as I know, has never been analyzed in any depth sociologically, philosophically, psychologically, or politically. But some things were so obvious you could understand them immediately, without any scientific analysis. For example, that society is a very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities, and that it’s extremely shortsighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its only true face.
None of us knows all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events, both visible and invisible. Who would have believed—at a time [in 1967] when the Novotný regime was corroding away because the entire nation was behaving like Svejks—that half a year later [during the Prague Spring of 1968] the same society would display a genuine civic-mindedness, and that a year later this recently apathetic, skeptical, and demoralized society would stand up with such courage and intelligence to a foreign power! And who would have suspected that, after scarcely a year had gone by, this same society would, as swiftly as the wind blows, lapse back into a state of deep demoralization far worse than its original one! After all these experiences, one must be very careful about coming to any conclusions about the way we are, or what can be expected of us.
Something else: that week showed how helpless military power is when confronted by an opponent unlike any that power has been trained to confront; it showed how hard it is to govern a country in which, though it may not defend itself militarily, all the civil structures simply turn their backs on the aggressors. And this is not to mention things like the principal and as yet unrecognized significance of the modern media as a political power in their own right, capable of directing and coordinating all social life. That week in August is a historical experience that cannot be wiped out of the awareness of our nations, though we can’t say yet what it really meant, or what marks it has left on the genetic material of society, and how and when these will manifest themselves.
If you were to describe the 1970s in Czechoslovakia, what would you say about them? What was your experience of that period—say from 1970 until the time of your third arrest, in 1979?
In an interview, John Lennon said that the 1970s weren’t worth a damn. And, indeed, when we look back on them today—I’m thinking now in the world context—they seem, compared with the rich and productive 1960s, to be lacking in significance, style, atmosphere, with no vivid spiritual and cultural movements. The Seventies were bland, boring, and bleak. For me they are symbolized on the one hand by Leonid Brezhnev and his stuffy rule, and on the other hand by the ambiguous figure of President Nixon, with his strange war in Vietnam and its strange end, and the absurd Watergate affair.
In Czechoslovakia, the Seventies were perhaps even gloomier. After the Soviet intervention and its rather caustic aftermath, Husák replaced Dubcek, and a long period of moribund silence began. A new ruling elite, which was in fact much like the old one, quickly formed and carried out all those purges, prohibitions, and liquidations. An exhausted society quickly got used to the fact that everything once declared forever impossible was now possible again, and that an often unmasked and ridiculed absurdity could rule once more. People withdrew into themselves and stopped taking an interest in public affairs. An era of apathy and widespread demoralization began, an era of gray, everyday totalitarian consumerism. Society was atomized, small islands of resistance were destroyed, and a disappointed and exhausted public pretended not to notice. Independent thinking and creation retreated to the trenches of deep privacy.
For me, the first half of the decade is a single, shapeless fog; I can’t say any longer how 1972, for instance, differed from 1973, or what I did in either of those years. Like most of my colleagues, I was driven out of every position I’d once held, I was publicly branded an enemy, and I was even indicted for subversion (there was no trial or prison sentence). Ultimately, I too had no choice but to withdraw into a kind of internal exile. My wife and I spent most of our time at Hrádecek, our cottage in the Krkonose mountains, which we gradually adapted and renovated. I tortured myself writing The Conspirators, the first play I wrote as a banned writer; after the excitement and stimulation of the years before, no play took me longer or was harder to write, and it’s clearly the weakest of my plays. I once compared it to a chicken that had been in the oven for too long and completely dried out. Of course, no one was waiting for the play or pressing me to finish it, so it really was written in a kind of vacuum. As I worked, I spent too much time speculating about how to come to terms with the completely new situation both in society and for myself personally, and, inevitably, almost all the life was squeezed out of it.
At the beginning of the 1970s, I became close with some colleagues whom fate had dealt a similar blow. These were former Communists, people I’ve referred to as “antidogmatics,” who in earlier days had often been my opponents. Each summer, Pavel Kohout, Ludvík Vaculík, Ivan Klíma, Jan Trefulka,3 and others would come to our cottage, where we held our own miniature writers’ congresses. Of course, another group would come along every summer as well, friends from earlier times, non-Communist writers I’d known back in the 1950s, when I was their “apprentice,” some of whom were with me in Tvár4 and later belonged to our Circle of Independent Writers.
These two groups gradually “fused”; they would come together or mingle in various ways, which was a rather symptomatic phenomenon: these people all had very different pasts, but the differences of opinion that had once separated them had long since ceased to be important. We were all in the same boat and we were in agreement about general matters. The tradition that was established then developed in various ways, and in fact has continued to this day in another form. During these encounters, we read one another our next texts.
Apart from that, however, we were quite isolated, and the popular term “ghetto” seems to me the most adequate to describe that period. The public of course knew us well, and they were aware of and sympathized with us, but at the same time they were careful not to have anything to do with us: it seemed too dangerous. And in this period of general atomization or disintegration, we didn’t have very good contacts with other groups or circles either. Each of us, in his own way, was stewing in his own juices. Having been marked in a particular fashion, with no hope for any kind of wider support, we had no way of actively expressing ourselves, so for the most part we passively accepted our situation and simply wrote. At that time, there were regular readings of new texts at Ivan Klíma’s place. Quite a few people attended, and I myself read two plays there, The Conspirators and, a year later, The Beggar’s Opera. We also followed each other’s work in written form. The texts were copied out and circulated, which is how the now-famous Edice Petlice5 came into being (its younger sister, Edice Expedice, was created in 1975).
In 1974 I was employed for about ten months as a worker in the Trutnov Brewery, about ten kilometers from Hrádecek. In a conversation with Jirí Lederer6 in 1975, I said I had gone to work there for financial reasons, but, looking back now, I think the real reason was that I needed a change. The suffocating inactivity all around me was beginning to get on my nerves. I wanted to get out of my shelter for a while and take a look around, be among different people.
One of the things that contributed—somewhat paradoxically—to the gloom of the time was the fact that this was also a period of détente. In our case, this meant that many of our Western friends and collaborators avoided us almost as circumspectly as official writers here did, so they wouldn’t annoy the authorities and frustrate attempts at rapprochement with those authorities. Fortunately, this naive, thickheaded, and suicidal way of “easing tensions” is not practiced by many people from the West anymore, with the exception, perhaps, of a few West German Social Democrats.
For me personally, the first noticeable break in the long and boring sentence of the 1970s was 1975. There were three reasons for this. First, the idea that it was time to stop being merely a passive object of those “victories written by history,” as Václav Belohradský7 calls them, and to try to become their subject for a moment. In other words, it was time to stop waiting to see what “they” would do and do something myself, compel them for a change to deal with something they hadn’t counted on. So I wrote a long open letter to Husák. In it, I tried to analyze the sad situation in our country: to point to the profound spiritual, moral, and social crisis hidden behind the apparent tranquility of social life. I urged Husák to realize just how much he himself was responsible for this general misery.
The letter, on the primary level, was a kind of autotherapy: I had no idea what would happen next, but it was worth the risk. I regained my balance and my self-confidence. I felt I could stand up straight again, and that no one could accuse me any longer of not doing anything, of just looking on in silence at the miserable state of affairs. I could breathe more easily because I had not tried to stifle the truth inside me. I had stopped waiting for the world to improve and exercised my right to intervene in that world, or at least to express my opinion about it. At the same time, it had a wider significance: it was one of the first coherent—and generally comprehensible—critical voices to be heard here, and a general response was not long in coming. Obviously I had hit a moment when all this endless waiting around had begun to get on a lot of people’s nerves, people who were tired of their own exhaustion, their own tiredness, and had begun to recover from that roundhouse right. So all kinds of people copied my letter out and passed it on, and it was read by practically everyone who still cared. Naturally I was enormously pleased and encouraged by this response.
The second important event of that year for me was writing my one-act play Audience. It was inspired by my time in the brewery, and it was the first appearance of Vanek, the writer. I wrote it quickly, in a couple of days, originally just to amuse friends to whom I wanted to read it during our summer sessions at Hrádecek. To my surprise, there was a wonderful response to that play too, and in time it actually became popular, in the literal sense of the word. Not only did it play—along with the subsequent Vanek one-acters—in theaters of all sorts in the rest of the world; what was, understandably, more important for me was that the play entered people’s awareness at home—first of all as a written text, and later as performed by my friend Pavel Landovský and me on a tape that was later released as a record by Safran in Sweden.
Things began to happen to me. For example, I once picked up a hitchhiker and, without knowing who I was, he began to quote passages from that play. Or I’d be sitting in a pub and I’d hear young people shouting lines from the play to each other across the room. That too was very encouraging not only because it was a flattering reminder of happier days, when my plays were being performed, when it was almost a cultural duty to know them, but above all because it suggested to me that even a playwright who is cut off from his theater can still have an impact on his own domestic milieu. He is still an integral part of it.
The third important experience in 1975 was the performance of my play The Beggar’s Opera in Horní Pocernice. The play is a free adaptation of John Gay’s old play, and has nothing to do with Brecht at all. I originally wrote the play at the request of a Prague theater that wanted to perform it under someone else’s name, but that offer fell through. My old friend Andrej Krob, who had once collaborated with us at the Theater on the Balustrade,8 rehearsed the play with an amateur group of friends, young students, and workers who liked the play, and decided that they would rehearse it regardless of the fact that I was under a very strict ban. So they rehearsed it and then they performed it—only once, naturally—in a restaurant called U Celikovských in Horní Pocernice.
Right up to the very last minute, I didn’t think the performance would actually take place. But it did, thanks mainly to the inattention of the local authorities, who thought the title sounded familiar and so allowed it to go on without making any further inquiries about who’d written it. Knowing that it would be an unrepeatable event, we invited everyone we could think of to come. There were about three hundred friends and acquaintances in the audience. Today, when I look at the photographs of the audience, I can see several future spokesmen for Charter 77, countless future signatories, but also actors and directors from the Prague theaters and other persons in cultural life.
The performance was marvelous; there seemed to be no end to the laughter and delight in the audience, and for a moment I was back again in the atmosphere of the Theater on the Balustrade in the 1960s. Thanks to the circumstances, it was, understandably, even more exciting. The matter-of-factness with which these young people acted my play gave their performance a special theatrical charm. It was a human act that had somehow, miraculously, been transformed into a highly suggestive theatrical act. At the party after the performance (and, by the way, this was right under the lamppost, at the restaurant U Medvídku, just around the corner from police headquarters on Bartolomejská Street), I told the troupe that I had more joy from this premiere than from all my foreign premieres, from New York to Tokyo.
The consequences were not long in coming. There was a huge to-do about it, and the matter was taken up by all kinds of institutions. There were interrogations and sanctions; enraged bureaucrats spread the word through the official Prague theaters that because of me (!) the cultural policy of the government would be that much more stringent, and the whole theater community would suffer. Many a shallow-minded actor fell for it and got very upset at me and my amateur actors for frustrating their artistic self-realization, by which, of course, they meant their well-paid sprints from job to job—in dubbing, theater, television, and film—that is, from one center for befuddling the public to another. But that wasn’t the point. For me the most important thing was that, for the first time in seven years (and the only time in the next eleven to follow), I had seen a play of mine on the stage, and I could see with my own eyes that I was still capable of writing something that could be performed. All these events combined to make me feel that I had something left in me, and gave me energy for further enterprises.
Do you feel like reminiscing about the prehistory and the origin of Charter 77?
For me personally, it all began sometime in January or February 1976. I was at Hrádecek, alone, there was snow everywhere, a night blizzard was raging outside, I was writing something, and suddenly there was a pounding on the door. I opened it, and there stood a friend of mine, whom I don’t wish to name, half frozen and covered with snow. We spent the night discussing things over a bottle of cognac he’d brought with him. Almost as an aside, this friend suggested that I meet Ivan Jirous, and he even offered to set up a meeting, because he saw him frequently. I already knew Jirous; I’d met him about twice in the late 1960s, but I hadn’t seen him since then. Occasionally I would hear wild and, as I discovered later, quite distorted stories about the group of people that had gathered around him, which he called the underground, and about the Plastic People of the Universe, a nonconformist rock group that was at the center of this society. Jirous was their artistic director.
I understood from my friend the snowman that Jirous’s opinion of me was not exactly flattering either: he apparently saw me as a member of the official, and officially tolerated, opposition—in other words, a member of the establishment. But a month later, when I was in Prague, thanks to my friend the snowman, I actually did meet Jirous. His hair was down to his shoulders, other long-haired people would come and go, and he talked and talked and explained to me how everything was. He gave me his “Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival” and he played me songs by the Plastic People, DG 307, and other Czech underground groups on an old rasping tape recorder. Although I’m no expert on rock music, I immediately felt that there was something rather special radiating from these performances, that they were not just deliberately oddball or dilettantish attempts to be outlandish at any price, as what I had heard about them before might have suggested: the music was a profoundly authentic expression of the sense of life among these people, battered as they were by the misery of this world. There was disturbing magic in the music, and a kind of inner warning. Here was something serious and genuine, an internally free articulation of an existential experience that everyone who had not become completely obtuse must understand.
Jirous’s own explanations quickly dispelled the doubts I had harbored from the fragmentary and sometimes derisory information I’d heard before. Suddenly I realized that, regardless of how many vulgar words these people used or how long their hair was, truth was on their side. Somewhere in the midst of this group, their attitudes, and their creations, I sensed a strange purity, a shame, and a vulnerability; in their music was an experience of metaphysical sorrow and a longing for salvation. It seemed to me that this underground of Jirous’s was an attempt to give hope to those who had been most excluded. I was already very late for a party at Pavel Kohout’s place, and I telephoned to apologize; Pavel was annoyed, but I couldn’t very well explain over the phone why talking to Jirous was more important to me at that moment. Jirous and I went on to a pub, and we carried on almost until morning. He invited me to a concert that was supposed to take place about two weeks later somewhere just outside Prague, but the concert never took place: in the meantime, the authorities arrested Jirous and his band, along with some other singers in the underground, a total of about nineteen people.
I was at Hrádecek when I learned about this, and I came to Prague immediately, because it was obvious that something had to be done, and it was equally obvious that it was up to me to do it. I also knew it wouldn’t be easy to gain some kind of wider support for these boys. Among the people who might have helped almost no one knew them, and those who did harbored similar doubts to those I had felt before meeting Magor (that is Jirous’s nickname). I had almost nothing concrete to prove that they weren’t the layabouts, hooligans, alcoholics, and drug addicts that the regime was portraying them as, in the hope of being able simply to sweep them out of the way.
At the same time, I felt we had to do something not only on principle—because something ought to be done when someone is unjustly arrested—but also because of the special significance this case seemed to have, a meaning that seemed to transcend the details. Political prisoners from the early 1970s were gradually returning from prison. The long sentences they received had been an act of political revenge: the regime understood these people, correctly, as an opposition; it knew they would not surrender, so it settled its accounts with them as vanquished enemies who refused to behave as such. Their trials were essentially the last political trials for several years; everything seemed to indicate that prison would remain an extreme threat and that those in power had actually succeeded in developing more sophisticated ways of manipulating society. People had become somewhat used to this by now, and they were all the more inclined to treat the case of the Plastic People as a genuinely criminal affair.
At the same time, this confrontation was, in its own way, more serious and more dangerous than those trials in the early 1970s. What was happening here was not a settling of accounts with political enemies, who to a certain extent were prepared for the risks they were taking. This case had nothing whatsoever to do with a struggle between two competing political cliques. It was something far worse: an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom and integrity. The objects of this attack were not veterans of old political battles; they had no political past, or even any well-defined political positions. They were simply young people who wanted to live in their own way, to make music they liked, to sing what they wanted to sing, to live in harmony with themselves, and to express themselves in a truthful way. A judicial attack against them, especially one that went unnoticed, could become the precedent for something truly evil: the regime could well start locking up everyone who thought independently and who expressed himself independently, even if he did so only in private. So these arrests were genuinely alarming: they were an attack on the spiritual and intellectual freedom of man, camouflaged as an attack on criminality, and therefore designed to gain support from a disinformed public. Here power had unintentionally revealed its own most proper intention: to make life entirely the same, to surgically remove from it everything that was even slightly different, everything that was highly individual, everything that stood out, that was independent and unclassifiable.
My role, I saw, would be to make use of my various contacts to stir up interest in the affair and to stimulate some action for the support and the defense of these people. I knew that, some time ago, Jirí Nemec, a philosopher and psychologist and a former colleague from Tvár, had become very close to the underground, and I knew I couldn’t do anything without consulting him first. Initially our rapprochement was extremely cautious, mainly on his part because I had broken with Tvár and this still hung between us; as far as the Tvár people were concerned, I was practically like what Trotsky had been for Stalin. (To be fair, I should add that, when I was in prison after the Charter came out, the Tvár people issued a collective position paper in my support.)
Gradually Jirí and I began to get along very well, and we laughed at our old differences (in the meantime, he too had gone through some changes, and was no longer the orthodox Tvár-ist he had once been). In the months and years that followed, we became real friends—for the first time, in fact. So Jirí and I began to “direct” the campaign for the Plastics, at least for as long as it was still necessary. The work gave both of us a great deal, and in doing it we were able to give each other something as well. Up to that point, he had deliberately held back from civic, public, or political involvement; he considered his work with the underground, his inconspicuous influence in the Catholic milieu, and his stimulating participation in the independent philosophical movement more important, and he did not want to put all that at risk by coming out in public in a way that would be conspicuous and would certainly lead to conflict. Until that moment, he had been more in favor of working “internally” than “externally.” Recognizing that the Plastics could only be helped by a public campaign, he had to change his position, and I think that on this new terrain it was I—since I was more familiar with it, after all—who became his guide. And he, on the other hand, led me out of the confines of “established opposition” and helped me widen my horizon.
We really planned the campaign in detail. Beginning with modest, internal steps, it was intended to build toward more emphatic ones. We wanted to give the regime the opportunity to retreat with dignity. We didn’t want to force it to withdraw right away behind its own prestige, because then nothing could move it. So, in the initial phase, we went around to different people and tried to get their support. At first we encountered misunderstanding and even resistance, which in that state of affairs was only to be expected. But I have to say that this mistrust evaporated very quickly, far more quickly than we had expected. People in different milieus very quickly began to understand that a threat to the freedom of these young people was a threat to the freedom of us all, and that a strong defense was all the more necessary because everything was against them. They were unknown, and the nature of their nonconformity was a handicap, because even decent citizens might perceive what they were doing as a threat just as the state had.
The alacrity with which many of those whom we had not expected to have much sympathy for this kind of culture were able to throw off their original inhibitions was clearly related to the situation I’ve already talked about: this was a time when we were beginning to learn how to walk upright again, a time of “exhaustion with exhaustion,” a time when many different groups of people had had enough of their isolation and felt that, if something was going to change, they had to start looking beyond their own horizons. Thus the ground was prepared for some kind of wider, common activity. If the regime’s attack on culture had taken place two years earlier, it might have gone by unnoticed.
If I remember correctly, our efforts climaxed with an open letter to Heinrich Böll signed by myself and Jaroslav Seifert, Václav Cerný, and Karel Kosík,9 and it ultimately resulted in a large petition [on behalf of the Plastic People] signed by over seventy people. By that time, the case was known internationally and the media were covering it. (Czechoslovakia had been out of the news for some time, and so the excitement around the Plastics attracted even more attention.) The affair became so generally known that, from then on, the campaign more or less looked after itself. Almost as if we had planned it, which we hadn’t, lawyers began to speak up, and finally (which must have been especially shocking for those in high places) even former Party functionaries let themselves be heard through the mouth of Zdenek Mlynár. Thus the spectrum was complete, and though you can’t read this directly from the signatures on those protests, it was here, in some connection with the case of the Plastic People—through newly established contacts and friendships—that the main opposition circles, hitherto isolated from each other, came together informally. Later these same groups became the central core of Charter 77.
The state was caught off guard: obviously no one had expected that the case of the Plastic People would arouse so much response. They had assumed it could be settled routinely, as just another criminal case among thousands of others. First they counterattacked with a defamation campaign (a television program against the Plastics and newspaper articles, in Mladý Svet, a youth weekly); then they retreated. They began releasing people from custody, and the roster of defendants began to shrink until finally (not counting the smaller trial in Pilsen) they only sent four of them to prison, and their sentences were relatively short, enough to cover the time they had spent in detention or a couple of months longer. The exception was Jirous, who naturally got the longest sentence.
The trial was a glorious event. You may be familiar with the essay I wrote about it.10 At that time, people interested in the trial could still gather in the corridors of the courthouse or on the stairways, and you could still see the prisoners being brought in in handcuffs and shout greetings to them. Later these possibilities were removed with a speed that corresponded to the speed of the gathering solidarity.
The people who gathered outside the courtroom were a prefiguration of Charter 77. The same atmosphere that dominated then, of equality, solidarity, conviviality, togetherness, and willingness to help one another, an atmosphere evoked by a common cause and a common threat, was also the atmosphere around Charter 77 during its first few months. Jirí Nemec and I both felt that something had happened here, something that should not be allowed simply to evaporate and disappear but that ought to be transformed into some kind of action which would have a more permanent impact, one which would bring this something out of the air onto solid ground. Naturally we weren’t the only ones who felt this; it was clearly a widespread feeling. We talked to Pavel Kohout about it, and he felt the same way. Zdenek Mlynár, whom we approached through Vendelín Komeda, was thinking along the same lines.11
These probes ultimately led to the first meeting, which was held on December 10, 1976. It was attended by Mlynár, Kohout, Jirí Nemec, me, the owner of the flat where the meeting took place, and Komeda, who organized it. There were two subsequent meetings that also included Petr Uhl,12 Jirí Hájek,13 and Ludvík Vaculík. Please understand me: Charter 77 belongs to all the Chartists, and it’s immaterial which one of them happened to have a hand in preparing the founding document.
If I speak of these meetings at all—and this is the first time I’ve done so—it’s only because I know that memory fades and one day, perhaps, a careful historian might condemn us for having kept these matters secret so long that we eventually forgot the details. In any case, it was at these meetings that the Charter was prepared. Each one of us discussed the matter in general terms with the people in our own circles, so that even in this embryonic phase quite a few people knew about it. The former Communist functionaries around Zdenek Mlynár had discussed the possibility of establishing some kind of committee to monitor human rights, or a Helsinki committee along the lines of the one that had been created in the USSR. But a committee has a necessarily limited number of members who have chosen each other and come to some agreement. The situation here, however, pointed in a different direction, toward the need for a broader and more open association. That was how we came to settle on the notion of a “citizens’ initiative.”
The point is that it was clear from the beginning—it was the reason for these meetings, not the conclusion they came to—that we should be trying for something more permanent. We were not simply here to write a one-shot manifesto. It was also clear to everyone from the beginning that whatever came out of this would be pluralistic in nature. Everyone would be equal, and no group, regardless of how powerful it might be, would play a leading role or impress its own “handwriting” on the Charter. After the first meeting, the outlines of what we were preparing were still not clear. We only agreed that by the next meeting the proposal for an initial declaration would be drafted. I recall that after this meeting Jirí Nemec and I visited [Ladislav] Hejdánek,14 who pointed out that our declaration might be based on the recently issued pacts on human rights. Parallel with that, but also after the first meeting, Mlynár came up with the same idea.
That was how the first draft of the declaration came about. Although I know exactly who wrote it and who added which sentences—or, on the contrary, who struck which sentences out—I don’t think it’s appropriate to reveal this now, on principle: the original declaration of the Charter is the expression of a collective will. Everyone who signed it stands behind it. And it has become a nice tradition now to emphasize this principle symbolically in, among other things, the silence we maintain about its authorship, though it’s clear to everyone that the first signatories could not have written it all at once and together. Perhaps I might say only this, that the name “Charter 77” was Pavel Kohout’s idea.
At the next two meetings, the text was edited, every word was carefully considered, we agreed on who would be the first spokesman, and we also agreed on a method of gathering signatures. It was still not really clear how the Charter would work in practice. As for the spokesmen, it was more or less clear from the outset that Jirí Hájek should be one of them; I understand that, when the ex-Communists were thinking about their own committee, Hájek was thought to be the most appropriate chairman. It was Petr Uhl, I believe, who come up with the idea of having three spokesmen. This was generally agreed upon, not only because it would express the pluralistic nature of the Charter, but for various practical reasons as well.
Petr also suggested that I should be another spokesman, although I understand that it was his wife Anna Sabatova’s idea. I had no way of knowing what being spokesman would involve, though I had justifiable fears that it would fully occupy me for God knows how long and leave me no time to write. I didn’t really want the job—none of the later spokesmen did either—but I had to accept it. I’d have seemed like a fool if I’d refused to devote myself to a cause I felt so strongly about and invested so much energy and enthusiasm in preparing and had helped persuade others to take up.
I don’t know any longer who first suggested Jan Patocka15 as the third spokesman. Perhaps it was Jirí Nemec. I only know that Jirí and I supported his nomination and helped explain why this was an important choice to the others, some of whom were not very familiar with Patocka. It seemed to us that Patocka, who was highly respected in non-Communist circles, not only would be a dignified counterpart to Hájek, but, more than that—and we were almost immediately proved right—we felt that from the outset he, better than anyone else, could impress upon the Charter a moral dimension.
At the time, I paid him several visits, both alone and with Jirí Nemec, and I must say that he hesitated for a long time before accepting. He had never before been directly involved in politics, and had never had any direct, sharp confrontation with the powers that be. In such matters he was reluctant, shy, and reserved. His strategy resembled the strategy of trench warfare: wherever he was, he tried to hold out as long as he could without compromise, but he never went on the attack himself. He was utterly dedicated to philosophy and teaching, and he never modified his opinions, but he did try to avoid things that might have put an end to his work.
At the same time, he felt, or so it seemed to me, that one day he would have to put his thinking to the test in action, as it were, that he couldn’t avoid it or put it off forever, because ultimately this would call his whole philosophy in doubt. He also knew, however, that, if he were to take this final step, he would take it completely, leaving himself no emergency exits, with the same perseverance he devoted to philosophizing. This, of course, might have been another reason for his reluctance. He was certainly not a rash person, and he hesitated a long time before taking any action, but once he had he stood behind it to the end.
I think there were others who tried to persuade him to become a spokesman too—I understand his son played an important role in this—but there were some who tried to dissuade him. I myself was involved in one incident, which perhaps was the decisive one: Patocka confided in me that he was also hesitating because of Václav Cerný. Cerný had been courageously involved in civic affairs all his life, and there were times when he had behaved more directly than Patocka had been able to. He had worked in the underground resistance during the war, and Patocka felt, in short, that Cerný had a greater moral right to be a spokesman, and he believed that Cerný would feel justifiably left out and resentful of Patocka if the position were not offered to him. It was as though Patocka was simply ashamed to do something he thought was more appropriate for Cerný, and he also seemed worried about Cerný’s possible reaction.
So I went to Cerný and laid the cards out on the table. I told him Patocka didn’t want to take the job without his blessing, because he thought that Cerný was in line ahead of him, but that it was essential to get Patocka for the position precisely because his political profile was not as sharply defined as Cerný’s and therefore he could function more easily as a binding agent, whereas Cerný, who was prickly and outspoken, might well have created a lot of resistance from the outset, and there was no way of guessing how it would affect the work of the Charter. Cerný accepted this at once, and I think his acceptance was sincere, without a trace of bitterness. I went back to Patocka and told him about my conversation with Cerný, and he was visibly relieved, as though a great weight had fallen from him. So the final hurdle had been overcome: Patocka became a spokesman and plunged into the work, literally sacrificing his life to it. (He died on March 13, 1977, after a prolonged interrogation.) I don’t know what the Charter would have become had Patocka not illuminated its beginnings with the clarity of his great personality.
But back to those preparatory meetings. We agreed that the signatures would be gathered slowly, over Christmas, during the normal friendly visits and encounters that take place at that time, so that we wouldn’t attract unwanted attention too soon. We named about ten “gatherers,” and we roughly outlined for them the circles in which they were to gather signatures. I looked after the technical side of things; I took the text around to the gatherers along with instructions on how it should be signed. I also collected signatures, mainly among my friends, most of whom were writers. We’d already agreed on the day—it was between Christmas and New Year’s—and the hour when all the signatures were to be brought to my place and arranged in an alphabetical list, and everything was to be got ready to be sent to the Federal Assembly and published. Meanwhile, enough copies of the initial declaration were typed out so that one could be sent to each of the signatories. Everything was supposed to be ready for January 1, 1977, but it was not to be announced until a week later, to allow time to prepare the appropriate publicity, which for various reasons had to be synchronized with the moment when the declaration was to be handed over to the officials.
The day the signatures were to be delivered to my place, I was rather nervous. There were indications that the police already knew something (and it would have been surprising if they hadn’t), and I was afraid they would break into my place just when everything had been assembled, and we would lose all our signatures. I got even more nervous because, although the meeting was still supposed to be at four o’clock, it was almost five and there was still no sign of Zdenek Mlynár, who was bringing in signatures gathered in ex-Communist circles. It turned out there had been a simple misunderstanding about the time, and he eventually arrived, with more than a hundred signatures, which took my breath away. The final tally for the first round was 243 signatures. The police did not show up, we got all the business out of the way, and then a small circle of us drank a toast with champagne.
In that dead period between the completion of our business and the actual explosion, there was one more big meeting at my place, attended by about twenty-five people. We discussed how the Charter would carry on its work and what should be done in what situation and so on. We knew that such a large meeting would probably be impossible to arrange later. Almost everyone was there. It was the first time, for instance, that I had seen Jaroslav Sabata16 since his recent return from prison. I was asked to run the meeting, and I felt rather strange, giving the floor to former university professors, ministers, and Communist party secretaries. But it didn’t seem strange to anyone else, which is an indication of how strong, even at the beginning, was the feeling of equality within the Charter.
Perhaps I should say something more about plurality within the Charter. It was not easy for everyone—many had to suppress or overcome their ancient inner aversions—but everyone was able to do it, because we all felt that it was in a common cause, and because something had taken shape here that was historically quite new: the embryo of a genuine social tolerance (and not simply an agreement among some to exclude others, as was the case with the National Front government after the Second World War), a phenomenon which—no matter how the Charter turned out—would be impossible to wipe out of the national memory.
It would remain in that memory as a challenge that, at any time and in any new situation, could be responded to and drawn on. It was not easy for many non-Communists to make that step, but for many Communists it was difficult in the extreme. It was a stepping out toward life, toward a genuine state of thinking about common matters, a transcendence of their own shadows, and the cost of doing so was saying goodbye forever to the principle of the “leading role of the Party.” Not many former Communists actually stood by that slogan anymore, but some of them still carried it in their blood or in their subconscious. It was to the great credit of Zdenek Mlynár that, with great political subtlety, he recognized the urgency of taking this step, and then used the weight of his authority to persuade those around him to take it.
At this point there are around twelve hundred signatures; I don’t know the exact figure, and for various reasons it’s pretty difficult to determine. At the beginning there really were about twenty or thirty people who signed the Charter but didn’t want their signatures published, at least not right away. We respected this, but later, when the police got their hands on the unpublished signatures as well (they even handed some over for the propaganda writers to use—for example, the signature of Dr. Prokop Drtina17 , we stopped doing it. Not because it would have been impossible to keep such signatures a secret in future, but because unpublished signatures don’t make much sense. If someone sides with the Charter within himself, but for some reason can’t sign it publicly, he has dozens of better ways to show this than signing a piece of paper which is then hidden away. So there is no second, underground, super-Charter. Perhaps I should also mention that we tried to dissuade some of our friends from signing the Charter, precisely because their work was so important and so much in the spirit of Charter 77 already that it wasn’t worth endangering that work with a signature. This was the case, for example with Vlaista Trenák and Jaroslav Hutka, both of whom later signed the Charter anyway.18
What happened after the publication of the initial declaration of the Charter is generally well known and well described, and the history of the Charter, its development, and its social significance have already been written about by historians. I’d rather ask you, therefore, about your first arrest and the period before your third arrest, which is really the beginning of your years in prison.
After the Charter was published and the propaganda campaign against it had started (the state thus effectively gave enormous publicity to the Charter in its very early days), I went through the wildest weeks of my life. At the time, Olga and I were living in Dejvice, a part of Prague which is on the way to Ruzyne Prison, and our flat began to look suspiciously the way the New York Stock Exchange must have looked during the crash of 1929, or some center of revolution. There were interrogations [of the Charter, sponsors, including Havel] that went on all day long in Ruzyne, but initially everyone was released for the night, and we’d all gather spontaneously at our place to compare notes, draft various texts, meet with foreign correspondents, and make telephone calls to the rest of the world. So ten hours and sometimes longer of being bombarded with questions by investigators were followed by this hectic activity, which wouldn’t let up until late at night. Our neighbors were bravely tolerant of all this but, though I had no concrete reason for thinking so, I felt in my bones that the only way this could end for me personally was prison.
My anticipation grew stronger from day to day, until finally it became a fervent wish that it actually happen, to end the unnerving uncertainty. On January 14, late in the evening, after my “normal” interrogation had finished, I was taken into a large room in Ruzyne, where various majors and colonels came in and threatened me with all kinds of terrible things. They claimed they knew enough about me to get me at least ten years in prison, that “the fun was over,” and that the working class was boiling with hatred toward me. Some time toward morning they shoved me in a cell. Later, when I was released, I wrote a report about a hundred pages long on the first days of the Charter, my arrest, and my subsequent imprisonment. I hid it somewhere, and to this day I have no idea where it is. Perhaps I’ll find it some day.
It’s pretty obvious, I think, what the main reason for my arrest at that time was: I was the youngest of the spokesmen, I was the only one who had a car, and, quite justifiably, they thought I was the main motive force behind all the activity, and the main organizer. Patocka and Hájek were treated as having a more symbolic significance; they were undoubtedly more restrained and mild than I was. The authorities obviously hoped that with my arrest the Charter would be crippled.
It was a terrible miscalculation. The Charter may never have functioned better than during my imprisonment! I know, from what people have told me, that Patocka and Hájek put all their strength and all their time into it, and that they personally acted as couriers and organizers. When urged by many friends to parcel out at least part of his agenda to others, Patocka apparently replied, “I’m a spokesman and I can still walk.”
To give substance to the official position that the Charter would be dealt with “politically” and not by locking people up, the authorities had to formally justify my arrest with something that had nothing to do with the Charter. That’s why I was tacked on to the case of “Ornest and Co.,” which involved giving texts that had originated inside the country to the émigré magazine Svedectví in Paris. But 90 percent of the questions during the interrogations had to do with the Charter. Moreover, the security officers hoped that by linking my case with that of Ornest they would have material support for the official thesis that the Charter was inspired and directed from abroad. They longed to be able to show that the introductory declaration had been published outside because of my secret connections, via Ornest, with Pavel Tigrid.19 Of course they didn’t manage to prove that—nor could they, because the whole thing was organized in an utterly different way, and far more simply.
For a combination of different reasons, my first period of imprisonment was very hard to bear, but I’ve already mentioned this in another place,…and I’ve written about it as well, and there’s no point in repeating myself here. The worst time for me was the final week, when I already suspected that I was about to be released and publicly disgraced at the same time, partly through my own fault. I could only sleep about an hour a day, and I spent the rest of the time in my cell tormenting myself and my cell mate (a petty thief who robbed grocery stores—I wonder where he is now?). He bore it all with great patience, he understood me exactly, and he tried to help me; if I could, I’d buy him a supermarket of his own out of sheer gratitude.
The public disgrace was worse than I’d expected: they said, for instance, that I’d given up the position of spokesman in prison, which wasn’t true; the truth is that I had decided to resign (naturally my resignation would have been submitted to those who had entrusted me with the job in the first place, not to the police) for reasons which I still believe were reasonable. But I did not resign while in prison: I merely did the immensely stupid thing of not keeping my intention to resign a secret from my interrogator.
The first days after my return, my state of mind was such that every mad-house in the world would have considered me a suitable case for treatment. In addition to all the familiar, banal symptoms of postprison psychosis, I felt boundless despair mingled with a sort of madcap euphoria. The euphoria was intensified by the discovery that things outside were completely different from the way I’d imagined they would be. The Charter had not been destroyed; on the contrary, it was going through its heroic phase. I was astonished at the scope of its work, at the response it had had, at the explosion of writing it had inspired, at the marvelous atmosphere of solidarity in its midst. I had the intense feeling that, during my few months in prison, history had taken a greater step forward than during the preceding eight years. (Much of the atmosphere of that time has long since evaporated; the heroic period of the Charter has been supplanted by an era of sober and often distressing everyday cares—and if this had not happened, it would have been against all the laws of life and nature.)
In time, of course, I recovered from the psychotic state of those first few days and weeks after my return from prison, but something of the inner contradictions and despair of that time remained within me and marked the two years between my release in May 1977 and my “definitive” imprisonment in May 1979. I became involved in all sorts of ways, and I may have gone somewhat overboard; I was too uptight, if not hysterical, driven by the longing to “rehabilitate myself” from my own public humiliation. I was a co-founder of VONS 20 ; I became a spokesman for the Charter again; I engaged in various polemics (about that time, the Charter went through its first crisis, one that was inevitable and completely useful: a new and deeper inquiry into its own meaning). I was even sent to Ruzyne Prison for six more weeks; it was an unsuccessful attempt to put me out of circulation, with the help of a fabricated indictment for disturbing the peace. They were very good weeks indeed. Each week I spent in prison I understood as another small step toward my “rehabilitation,” and I took delight in that.
Another factor that contributed to my nervousness, understandably, was the increasing pressure the police put on the Charter and on me personally. I was constantly “shadowed”; there were interrogations; the local authorities plotted against me; I was under house arrest several times, and this was made more piquant by insults and threats; “unknown perpetrators” broke into our dwelling and vandalized it, or they did all sorts of damage to my car. It was an exciting time, what with attacks by the police, escaping from shadows, crawling through the woods, hiding out in the flats of co-conspirators, house searches, and dramatic moments when important documents were eaten.
It was also at this time that we had meetings with the Polish dissidents on our common border (the notorious anti-hiker Havel was compelled to walk to the summit of Snezka five times, but there was a reward: he was able to meet and establish permanent friendships with Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, and other members of KOR, the Workers’ Defense Committee). I can remember more than one incredible story from that period, the kind of story that to this day I would hesitate to make public for fear of harming someone. As all of this increased in degree, it became clearer and clearer to me that it would all come to a bad end and that I would most probably end up in prison again.
This time, though, I wasn’t afraid of the prospect. I now knew roughly what to expect, I knew that whether my stay in prison was going to have any value in general terms depended entirely on me, and I knew that I would stand the test. I had come to the conclusion—and it may seem overly dramatic to put it like this, but I swear I mean it—that it is better not to live at all than to live without honor. (So there will be no misunderstanding: this is not a standard I apply to others, but is the private conclusion of one individual, a conclusion which I have drawn from my own practical experience, and which has proved practical for me in the sense that in extreme situations it simplifies decisions that I have to make about myself.) If my intuition told me that I was headed for prison, as it had in 1977, then this time, unlike 1977, it was not merely a premonition of something unknown, but a clear awareness of what it would mean: quiet perseverance and its unavoidable outcome, several hard years in prison.
When they finally did lock me up during their campaign against VONS, all my former uneasiness suddenly vanished: I was calm and reconciled to what would follow, and I was certain within myself. None of us knows in advance how we will behave in an extreme and unfamiliar situation (I don’t know, for example, what I would do if I were physically tortured), but if we are certain at least about how we will respond to situations that are more or less familiar, or at least roughly imaginable, our lives are wonderfully simplified. The almost four years in prison that followed my arrest in May 1979 constituted a new and separate stage of my life.
In prison, you wrote an extensive book of essays, called Letters to Olga, but for obvious reasons there is nothing in them about the prison itself. What did you do there? What kind of work were you assigned to?
When I was in prison I thought constantly about what I would eventually write about it, and how. I tried to remember all those curious yet moving, comic yet shocking, strange yet typical experiences I had there. I thought about how one day I would describe the incredibly absurd situations I got into. I looked forward at the very least to rendering some colorful, Hrabalesque eyewitness account of the countless, weirdly complex human destinies I encountered there. And I was frustrated by not being able to make even some rudimentary notes on paper.
But when I got out again, I suddenly realized that I would probably never write anything about prison. It’s hard to explain why this is so; certainly not because my memories of that dark period in my life are too painful or depressing, or because they would open old wounds. I think there is a whole set of different reasons behind it. In the first place I’m not a narrative author, I can’t write stories, and always forget them anyway. In other words, I’m no Hrabal. In the second place, life outside keeps me too busy, and too frequently comes at me with themes of its own, which I experience directly, immediately, right now. It leaves me no time to return to the utterly different and remote world of my years in prison.
In the third place, the most important thing about it is incommunicable. No, I mean it: it was a deeply existential and deeply personal experience, and as such I’m simply unable to pass it on. Of course, there are a lot of things that, with a little effort, I could recall and describe, for better or worse, but I’m afraid that, when it comes right down to it, they’d all be superficial things, the surface outlines of events, situations, actions, and characters, not their inner and personally lived essence, and it would probably end up distorting the whole thing rather than doing it justice. You know what I mean: twenty or thirty years ago, in the army, we had a lot of obscure adventures, and years later we tell them at parties, and suddenly we realize that those two very difficult years of our lives have become lumped together into a few episodes that have lodged in our memory in a standardized form, and are always told in a standardized way, in the same words. But in fact that lump of memories has nothing whatsoever to do with our experience of those two years in the army and what it has made of us.
I tried a couple of times, experimentally, to give a coherent account of prison, and each time I realized that, for all my pedantically precise description of all the factographic details, I was missing the essence of things by a fatally wide margin. That remained hidden behind the factography and, in a strange way, was even falsified by it. Enough has been written about prisons and concentration camps, and in that literature are books evoking that experience in a genuinely suggestive and authentic way. I remember, for instance, the marvelous picture of a concentration camp in [Ferdinand] Peroutka’s The Cloud and the Waltz, or some passages from Solzhenitsyn or [Karel] Pecka. But I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it—all the more so because I don’t feel like doing it. And rather than miss the meaning of that experience, it’s better not to deal with it at all. So I’d rather not talk about prison at all, though I will respond to the concrete part of your question.
In Hermanice I first worked as a spot welder, and I welded together metal gratings. For several months I couldn’t fill the quota, but, then, fellows twenty years younger, physically stronger, and accustomed to physical work couldn’t fill it either. In any case, that’s why they assigned me to that work, so that when I failed to fulfill the quotas they’d have an excuse to go on tormenting me in all sorts of different ways. The so-called nonfulfillers in prison are pariahs among pariahs; they’re punished in various ways, used for work after work, and given less food (that didn’t bother me), and their pocket money is docked, and they are constantly accused of loafing and ridiculed for it by the police and some of the other prisoners. After several months I was assigned to better work (the contrast between my work classification and my fitness was starting to be noticeable, and there was a danger that news of my health would get out), but I must add that it was at a time when I was beginning to fulfill the norms after all, which gave them fewer opportunities to torment and exploit me.
Next I worked with a big oxyacetylene welder, cutting flanges out of enormous, thick pieces of metal. Jirí Dienstbier21 and I took turns on it, and both of us fulfilled the quotas. After I was shifted to Bory, I worked in the laundry, which was a very exclusive place to work (the human relationships were worse there, however: almost everyone informed on everyone else), and finally I was assigned to work in a scrap-metal plant, where I stripped the insulation off wires and cables; even that wasn’t too bad, as long as you could get used to the cold and the endless filth. Work in prisons is slave labor but it’s also intended to be punishment. The quotas are double what they would be in civilian life. To that I should add that in prison of the first correctional category, where I was, work is generally considered by the prisoners as a psychological rest, and they all look forward to it. The remainder of the day provides better opportunities for general harassment, which is the main instrument of “reeducation.”
Do you think that you fulfilled the goals you set for yourself after you were sentenced? Did you come back from prison a more balanced person?
Once I was sentenced, I knew for certain that I’d be spending several years in prison. That kind of assurance, regardless of how well one is prepared for it, is an important watershed. Suddenly all one’s hierarchical values are changed. One’s chronological perspective is changed, and everything takes on a different meaning. I’m an inveterate bureaucrat, and finding my bearings in this new situation meant above all making a plan. It was a kind of instantaneous autotherapy.
I also knew that I would be better able to bear prison if I could manage to breathe some positive significance into it, turn it around to work in my favor, give it a value. I’ve already mentioned the despair I felt during the two years before my arrest, and the uptightness and excessive behavior that resulted. It was easy enough, therefore, to see that I would have to use that endless period when—as I imagined then—I would be no more than tiny, anonymous screw in the enormous prison machinery, to find inner calm, to rediscover the balance I once had, and to gain some kind of perspective on things. I remembered, rather nostalgically, how I’d been in the Sixties, a balanced, cheerful fellow with a healthy, ironic distance from everything, and not constantly bogged down in trauma and depression. Of course, I was no doubt idealizing my own youth, and my notions of what it would be like to serve my sentences were immensely naive. I had even hoped to write plays in prison, learn new languages, and God knows what else!
An even greater illusion was my hope that I would have peace and quiet in prison, and that I would be no more than “a tiny, anonymous screw”! Just the opposite happened. Prison was an endless chain of nerve-racking situations; I found myself being observed and monitored by an infinitely greater number of watchful eyes than during my darkest time in freedom. In a few days, I understood how foolish, at least externally, my plans had been. But this doesn’t mean that I gave them up entirely. So I tried, along another, immensely more tortuous little path, to proceed in that general direction, or at least to act in the spirit of my original plans. And as I’ve…said, my letters were immensely helpful in that regard.22 They were the only thing left that I could really do, and they became an area in which I tried to do something with myself, to achieve something, to clarify something.
I’m not the best judge of whether I returned from prison a more balanced man or not. I may have rid myself of that excessiveness I felt before my arrest. Yet some things are worse than before. I’m less capable of spontaneous delight, my periods of spleen are more frequent, and I need even more dogged determination to carry out the tasks I set for myself. My wife says I hardened in prison. I don’t know. If I have worsened, then it has only touched my inner self, my intimate self, my private self. In my work I may well be genuinely more balanced, more tranquil, and perhaps more understanding and tolerant too, and perhaps I’ve achieved a greater perspective. If I look over what I’ve done since my release, from the plays and essays I’ve written right down to less obvious civic acts, I have the impression that these things are true. (After all, even Largo Desolato, which is obviously my most personal play, is essentially a rather cold and surgical work!) Whether my impression is correct, however, is something best left to others to decide; I am truly not the most competent judge in these matters! But this progress—if it really is progress—is not free: it is obviously being paid for by a decline in my ability to be quite simply happy as a physical being….
—Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson
Copyright © 1987 by Rowohlt Verlag GMBH Translation Copyright © 1990 by Paul Wilson.
- 1 An actor, one of the founders of the Theater Behind the Gate in Prague; since 1979 he has been living in the US.
- 2 National Committees are the local administrative governments.
- 3 Kohout is a poet and playwright who has been living in Vienna since 1978. He is the author of From the Diary of a Counterrevolutionary and Poor Murderer. Vaculík, a novelist and journalist, is the author of The Axe and The Guinea Pigs. Klíma is a novelist, the author of My Merry Mornings, My First Loves, and Love and Garbage, which was published in England this year.
- 4 A small literary magazine founded in 1963 by a number of young non-Communist writers, including Jirí Grua. Havel joined the editorial board in 1965, shortly before Tvár was banned. It began republishing in 1968, with Havel as chairman of the editorial board: eight issues appeared before Tvár was finally shut down. According to Havel, “When I joined the editorial board of Tvár my involvement in the struggle for the magazine’s survival began. It was a period of endless debates, meetings, and arguments; it was my private school of politics; politically, and intellectually as well, Tvárwas in no way clearly defined, at least not in the sense that it declared its support for some ideological doctrine . Tvársimply printed what it considered good, interesting, profound, authentic—from Heidegger to Teilhard to Trakl, Jan Hanc, and Jirí Kubena, and they didn’t really worry about where people placed them.”
- 5 The samizdat imprint started by Ludvík Vaculík. Over the past decade and a half it has published many of the major works of unofficial Czech literature.
- 6 Until 1969 Lederer was a reporter for Lidovné Noviny and Reportér; he spent 1972, 1974, and between 1977 and 1981 in prison, after which he emigrated.
- 7 A philosopher and sociologist; professor at the University of Genoa.
- 8 The small theater in Prague, founded in 1958, where Havel had worked between 1960 and 1968. Of it he writes: “Up until 1968, when I left, I lived for that theater, I helped to create its profile, and I identified with it entirely. I went through a number of jobs when I was there, from stagehand to lighting technician, secretary, reader, right up to dramaturge. But it didn’t really matter which of those jobs I held in any given moment, and often I held them concurrently: in the morning I organized tours, in the evening I ran the lighting for the performance, and at night I rewrote plays.”
- 9 Seifert is a poet and winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize in Literature; Cerný, a literary critic and theorist, was until 1950 a professor at Charles University; Kosík, a philosopher and historian of Czech culture, was a professor at Charles University and a member of the Czechoslovak Central Committee.
- 10 “The Trial” (Proces) was written in September 1976.
- 11 Mlynár is a politician and journalist; in 1968 he was first secretary of the Party Central Committee; he has been living in Austria since 1977. Komeda is a historian now living in Germany.
- 12 A student leader and journalist.
- 13 Hájek, a Marxist literary critic, has been a professor at Charles University since 1977.
- 14 A philosopher.
- 15 The distinguished Czech philosopher and scholar. Paul Wilson, in his introduction to Letters to Olga, writes: “The person chiefly responsible for introducing phenomenology to Czech and Slovak intellectuals was the philosopher Jan Patocka, whose life was a living parable of thought in action. He was a student of Husserl and Heidegger and, since the Communist takeover in 1948, had virtually been excluded from university life, with the exception of a brief period from 1968–1972.”
- 16 A one-time Party functionary who became a Charter 77 spokesman.
- 17 Minister of Justice until 1948, Drtina was later imprisoned. He died in 1980.
- 18 Trenák and Hutka are underground singers who went into exile in 1978.
- 19 A journalist who was associated with Radio Free Europe, and the publisher of the émigré magazine Svedectvi.
- 20 VONS, the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted, was set up on April 27, 1978. Havel was among its eighteen members.
- 21 A journalist, who since December 1989 has been foreign minister of Czechoslovakia.
- 22 Letters to Olga (Knopf, 1988).