Vaclav Havel: another hero disappears

It’s impossible to describe to anyone under the age of, say, 30 – shockingly – what it was like to grow up with the Iron Curtain in place, the Cold War on, the Soviet Union holding half the world in its icy grip.

In fact, I’ve just had several goes at describing it here, and I can’t. We all either remember and know, or have read and will imagine. Suffice to say that the hunger for information about what was happening on the other side was just as great from this end as it was from the other.

At least, it was where I grew up. Painters, designers, poets, novelists, relatives – houses full of books in several languages and the huge sense that to try to decipher them was a sacred work, to understand and learn and read the words written in such hardship. It was a far cry from the too-much-everything we were all drowning in, bored because there was no real sense of urgency…

Well, and in my twenties, I discovered the plays and essays of a Czech playwright called Vaclav Havel. A writer of the absurd, about it,  in it: humour – a graveyard humour – was a big weapon in the arsenal of these writers. Forensic humour, that simply describes and leaves the disjuncture in plain sight. Havel had been in prison and his letters to his wife were published. This was about the time, or shortly before, the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya was released from her prison, and her poems were published (by Bloodaxe; I still have the book), and the stories told of how she wrote them on squares of toilet paper she slipped out to her husband – the only paper she was allowed – or committed them to memory.

Each of these transports of information, each person who was braver than we might be, was precious.

Well, Havel. He delineated in as much detail as Brodsky the enervating effects of abuses of language and thought and narrative. See his essay Stories and Totalitarianism ; see his website for more. He had been involved in the mythic Charter 77 for human rights. He had been in prison more than the once, had come out and written more and gone back.

Incidentally, Rob Mackenzie has done us the favour of linking on Facebook to the Czech psychedelic rock band, Plastic People of the Universe, whose arrest was the final straw that prompted Charter 77.

it’s hard not to think of this week’s images of the police in Indonesia arresting, shaving the heads of, and forcing to ritually wash in a river, a crowd of young people whose crime was to attend a punk music concert.

Well, so it was unbelievable when Havel became the president of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. That was the year the first Baroque offspring was born, so he doesn’t remember the Iron Curtain, how iron it was and how uncurtainlike. And how surreal and amazing it was when Havel appointed Frank Zappa as the American cultural attaché. (And where is our Frank Zappa now?) And then the world changed, the Eastern bloc countries came blinking into the glare of Thatcherite capitalism, and everything became different, and the problems… well…Havel wrote in his Summer Meditations (1992):

So now we witness a strange state of things: true, society has regained its freedom but, in certain respects it behaves worse than when it was not free. We see rapidly increasing crime of all sorts, pouring out through the media; I refer mainly to the boulevard press, that sewer which always spews forth at times of historic upheaval from the hidden recesses of mind.

Other phenomena, more serious and even more dangerous, are manifesting: resentment and nationalist suspicion, racism, and even signs of schism, limitless demagogy, a taste for intrigue and deliberate lying, political opportunism, frantic struggle for personal interests, lust for power and plain ambition, fanaticism of all kinds, all kinds of thievery, the spread of the Mafia, a general lack of tolerance, of understanding of others, lack of taste, of moderation, of thoughtfulness. And finally a new ideology, as if Marxism had left behind a neurotic vacuum which must be filled at all costs.

. . . . . .

Nevertheless I say to myself that if, with a handful of friends, I have been able to beat my head against the wall in telling the truth about communist totalitarianism in an ocean of indifference, there is no reason not to continue to beat my head against the wall because, in spite of supercilious smiles, I shall continue to speak tirelessly about responsibility and morals in the teeth of the current slump in our society; and I consider that there is no reason to believe the battle lost beforehand. Only one battle can surely be lost: the one we give up. . . . I do not cease to find new proofs of a grand potential of goodwill within us. It is only disintegrated, intimidated, entrapped, paralyzed, and out of commission, as though it knew not where to find support, how to begin, or how to assert itself.

I was going to quote you, or at least read, some of one of his plays. But yesterday, because I can’t afford a Christmas tree this year,  I made my Christmas tree out of books (hurrah!) – and his seem to be inside there somewhere. What a couple of weeks that’s been. What a couple of days. Christmas decorating amid obituaries. But I’m glad my Christmas tree is partly made of Vaclav Havel.