The Man in the High Castle

Prague Castle, Seat of the Czech Government

Prague Castle, Seat of the Czech Government

No, this isn’t about the Philip K. Dick novel of that name, but about a nation’s president who came to the world’s notice after many years as a jailed dissident and as a playwright of international renown. I am referring to Václav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and (after Slovakia decided to go its own way) the first president of the Czech Republic.

I have just finished reading his informal memoir, To the Castle and Back: Reflections on My Strange Life as a Fairy Tale Hero. Written after he left office in 2003, this book consists of three interleaved sequences:

  1. Reflections written mostly in 2005 during a protracted visit to the United States
  2. A series of memos to his staff dating from 1993-2003 that he found on his computer
  3. An ongoing interview with Czech writer Karel Hvizd’ala about his experiences running a country that had suddenly cast off the yoke of Communism

It also shows some of the small issues that endlessly plagued him, such as the following:

In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it? The lightbulb has been unscrewed so as not to wake it up and upset it.

At other times, Havel had to complain to his staff about the ugliest old telephones being in the most prominent places, about the length of the watering hose used in the gardens, and why the good silverware was not being used for state dinners.

I was curious to discover that Havel, despite being a well-known writer, was petrified whenever he had to begin writing anything. And he appears to have written all his own speeches! (And well, too.)

Czech President Václav Havel

Czech President Václav Havel

Particularly impressive was Havel’s answer as to Hvizd’ala as to what his credo was as the President of the Republic:

I think that the moral order stands above the legal, political, and economic orders, and that these latter orders should derive from the former, and not be techniques for getting around its imperatives. And I believe this moral order has a metaphysical anchoring in the infinite and the eternal.

Can you imagine any of our own leaders being so candid, to the point, and right at the same time?

Despite the book’s informality, I find it that To the Castle and Back gives probably the best picture of what the transition from Communism to Capitalism was like in one country, and the perils of what Havel calls “postcommunism,” in which the former Communist leaders, being still in a position of power and with all the right connections, loot the country.