Patricia Hampl: Portrait of the artist as political leader

  • Article by: PATRICIA HAMPL
  • Updated: December 20, 2011 - 7:52 PM
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Vaclav Havel

Photo: Katerina Sulova, Associated Press

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Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, would surely have radiated his signature wry smile to see that his nearest neighbor on the obituary pages this week has been the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

They both died over the weekend. Easy to imagine Havel relishing their darkly comic pairing.

Such humor is peculiarly Czech -- impish and absurdist. And dead serious behind the apparently harmless wink, the weirdly robotic Kim exiting the world stage clutching his fistful of nuclear threats, just ahead of the hipster philosopher-president who ushered in the "Velvet Revolution."

"Hear the one about the Czech revolution?" people said after the Communists seemed to melt away after holding the country in a 40-year vise-grip. "It's so peaceful even their martyrs don't have to die."

Vaclav Havel wasn't simply the centerpiece of that astonishing late 20th-century moment. He embodied a genial paradox: He was an artist and a political leader, bringing together oppositions we routinely ascribe to these identities.

The artist as outsider, powerless in the way of the world. The politician scrubbed by cynical realpolitik of whatever ideals he ever had. Havel collapsed these stereotypes in the crucible of his life.

He wore this doubleness lightly. The result was a moral presence of enduring splendor.

Havel was not only "a dissident" (though his life defined the term), but the elected president of his country. He was a writer before, during and after his life as president. Just as he had been a writer before, during and after his life as a Communist-era prisoner.

He was last arrested and imprisoned in spring 1989 for laying flowers at the spot where the philosophy student Jan Palach immolated himself in 1969 to protest the invasion that crushed the Prague Spring. (So much for Czech martyrs not having to die.)

By the end of that year he was president of the country.

He is celebrated as a playwright (he won two Obies for plays produced in New York), but he can be most intimately known through his prose works, especially "Letters to Olga," written to his wife during his almost five-year hard-labor sentence for spearheading the free-speech movement "Charter 77."

"Why is it that when we are traveling alone in the second car of a conductorless streetcar," he asks Olga, "so that obviously no one could catch us not paying, we still usually -- though perhaps after an inner tussle -- drop our fare in the box?"

I love that "usually." He was a moral philosopher, but his faith was not in perfection but in the game struggle of human frailty.

"I am not interested in why man commits evil," he continues in the same letter. "I want to know why he does good (here and there) or at least feels that he ought to."

And I love that nicely shaded parenthetical "here and there." Like all truly original thought, it is not "new" in its content but in its radical angle of vision, the slight but critical pivot away from predictable assumptions, its acceptance of contradiction.

It moves from idiosyncratic observation, puzzling its way from a random, even absurd detail (that token in the streetcar fare box) to the reality of an inner moral pulse. This way of thinking is the polar opposite of the ideological rigidity that ushers in totalitarianism.

I met Havel only twice, both vague memories in the midst of large formal events. I remember the first time better, in Prague at the American ambassador's residence at the annual Fourth of July party.

Havel stood on the vast lawn, a bit awkwardly, looking as if his sober, well-tailored suit had him under house arrest. Someone reminded him, as we shook hands, that he had received my memoir about growing up in a Midwestern Czech-American family and traveling to Prague during the Cold War.

He looked faintly baffled and smiled -- an oddly conspiratorial smile, as if he and I shared a wonderful secret -- which was that he had no idea who I was, what my book was or why he should pretend he had read it. I felt a perfectly illogical delight, charmed in the midst of a starchy formal event by this beguiling yet guileless man.

Maybe that's why the sharpest picture I have of him isn't of that brief encounter but of a Cold War moment in Prague where I didn't actually see him, but where he always lives in my imagination: Cafe Slavia, the preferred hangout for theater people, near the Theater under the Balustrade, the avant-garde stage that premiered most of his plays.

It's 1975, dark days. The air is blue with the fug of cigarette smoke. I'm there with a poet who points out two secret policemen, looking grumpy at a nearby table. A very noir scene.

Surely Havel is there, not in his presidential suit, but in his leather bomber jacket, collar turned up, taking it all in, amused. Very cool, very alive.

* * *

Patricia Hampl is the author of several memoirs, including "A Romantic Education." She is Regents Professor of English at the University of Minnesota.

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