Scooting down the corridors of power

Lesley Chamberlain challenges a harsh portrait of the playwright-turned-president whose mischief made a revolution
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Vaclav Havel: a political tragedy in six acts, by John keane (Bloomsbury, £25, 520pp)

Vaclav Havel: a political tragedy in six acts, by John keane (Bloomsbury, £25, 520pp)

TEN YEARS ago, Vaclav Havel embodied the civilised world's euphoria that the Communist dragon was slain. One minute a dissident playwright in jeans, the next president of Czechoslovakia, he was much loved for his oblique, amused attitude to power. He used a scooter to negotiate the corridors of Prague Castle. There were mistakes in protocol and news leaked out that "Vasek" was still happiest drinking with his old friends. But it was a cause for celebration twice over that he and his informal team brought a new spirit to politics by ridiculing the stiff coldness of the old regime.

There was joy, too, that Havel brought good art so close to decent politics. His deadly satirical portraits of "life in the office" did not need anti-Communist audiences to strike home. I remember a British audience for Temptation in 1986 stamping with joy. Havel poked fun at conformity. He was the writer-philosopher whom the wicked old men under Moscow's diktat had forced to work in a brewery. No wonder secret romantics loved him. John Keane was one of them.

When Havel co-authored Charter 77, that confrontation of the Communist authorities with their misdeeds was like a "life raft launched upon an eerie sea of silence," as Keane nicely says. Havel followed it with "The Power of the Powerless", an essay in which he insisted that every instant an individual resists the dehumanising power of the state is a victory for decency; that conscience, courage, and peaceful alertness to any infringement of freedom matter. It was difficult not to admire a man whose commitment was tested with four, almost fatal, years in prison. Yet Keane evidently admires him no more, and has confined his life in a theoretical prison in order to prove it.

Like all Central Europeans, Havel grew up with history as an unwelcome guest. His bourgeois family was rich in education and property (his grandfather built the Lucerna galleria, a gem of modern Prague). Communism did for the property but not for the family spirit. When he was forced out of his "elitist" school, Havel's mother Bozenka encouraged him to form an independent discussion group. Under her influence, Havel emerged as a young writer with the courage to speak out.

He attacked the cramped aesthetic ideology of socialist realism, and took his cue from the prewar theatre of the Absurd. A playlet he wrote with a friend in the army, anticipating his own fate, showed how a few moments of standing against institutional pressure could throw a whole life into doubt.

By the time a more mature adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera was performed in a pub back-room lined with mattresses to muffle noise and delay the secret police, Havel was leading a life of defiant humour, evasion and protest. His artistic and moral preoccupations converged in the idea that malign systems gain power through obfuscatory language. With plays like The Memorandum, he transformed the anti-communication theme into some of the funniest and most rousing theatre anywhere in the world.

By the middle of the 1980s, however, his dramatic subject had shifted round to the plight of the man on whom every one else's hopes of moral salvation are pinned. That individual, like the protagonist in Largo Desolato, struggles with his secret weakness, his evasiveness, his darkness. Havel's fear of "nothingness", of "not having an identity", grew up from who knows what sources. Back in 1969 the novelist Milan Kundera accused him of "moral exhibitionism". Havel's interrogators after Charter 77 further gouged into a soft spot when they accused him of selfishness.

Elevation to the presidency in 1989 must have massively increased the pressure on Havel, but he seems always to have been tempted to leave his own personality by the back door, not least under pressure of love. While married to Olga, his unfaithfulnesses were legion. He needed his women to be strong and good-looking, but there had to be an exit marked. Perhaps with his marriage to the actress Dasa Veskrnova in 1996, after Olga's death, he hoped to find a last refuge behind a glamorous façade in a bond which his own death was most likely to end. Unsympathetic, but perhaps unwilling to chime with the Czech tabloids, Keane is unforthcoming on what really happened.

There is a warm, Havelian spirit waiting to get out of this book ­ a stream of sentimental feelings and simple harmonies, such as in Havel's favourite Bee Gees song, "Massachusetts". Havel is a spiritual child of 1968, when by fluke he found himself stranded in Paris, with a window seat on the student revolution. The Havel who in November 1989 addressed a nation in Wenceslas Square remains today a soft-hearted man of 63, more a follower of flower-power than a French militant.

Keane overworks the old old metaphor of politics as a stage peopled by actors, because he wants us to think that Havel only ever impersonates himself. Yet his book is so cold, with a structure that tends to disappear up its own poststructuralist theories, that it feels like an act of revenge. The truncated account of Havel's last 10 years strikes me as particularly unfair, since most of the material comes from interviews carried out in the past two years. Havel almost never speaks for himself.

For Keane, Havel's best hour was in "The Power and the Powerless", when he taught the world a new theory ­ that of the empowered subject. Keane is a political scientist and first edited that essay in English. But we might have been reminded that "The Power of the Powerless" expresses an essentially Christian response to violence, and takes a Kantian line on the unimpeachable authority of conscience.

Keane's disappointment with the later Havel means many readers will find this book disappointing. What we have to read in it is not so much a political tragedy as a "Waiting for Havel". But then, happily, Havel still might appear from offstage, since he goes on living and writing.