Vaclav Havel: playwright- poet, a jailbird, a jazzman, a beer drinking statesman has passed. The civic-minded, truth-hearted, beauty oriented leader of the peaceful Velvet Revolution is gone. A Czech gentleman who mocked his countries’ bogeymen and never spared the mustard while chastising the powerful has finished his race.
This tribute is how I kind-of met him.
I flew into Prague, 29 December 1992 3 days and 2 nights before Czechoslovakia would split in two. The Velvet Revolution which was a movement of dissidents/ activists and poets/ playwrights non-violently cracking the single communist state party had gained freedom for Czechoslovakia, and, was presently about to evolve into The Velvet Divorce. After a riotous night of New Year’s celebration, everyone’s world had changed. I was living in Europe and there were two new countries on the continent: The Czech and the Slovak Republics.
Just two months earlier I was taking day classes at a public city college and at night I would oversee a men’s homeless shelter in Uptown Chicago. When they were all mostly asleep I would stay up with a flashlight and read about Havel and Prague. Him the philosopher king and his city a city of a thousand spires. Havel a poet and dissident, a writer turned citizen and Prague, softly known as the coolest city in the world. In the middle of the night at the uptown shelter I would dream like a mittleeuropa mystic. Mayor Dailey wanted a new sports stadium in Chicago and with that lots of affordable housing would disappear. In Prague, there was talk of a third way. Freedom of expression and the power of art nouveau would energize and temper free enterprise. Inspired people in the Czech Republic could now get rich but they might not lose, well, their roots. Maybe they won’t forget there European élan and make a place in the new Prague for the same sort of folks who were right next door to me snoozing on army cots. How could this be done according to Havel?
“If we are to change our world view, images have to change. The artist now has a very important job to do. He’s not a little peripheral figure entertaining rich people, he’s really needed.”
I became a believer and through some haphazard connections I made through the uptown Slavic wards of Chicago politics I found a job over there. I was put in contact with Vaclav’s wife Olga via the Olga Havel foundation and I was invited to join what was left of The Czechoslovak Council for Humanitarian Cooperation. Say that three times fast and you know what it’s like to be in Prague. So you see this was traveling before the internet made traveling, and Havel was a hero to go meet before Facebook came and allowed everybody their own heroic status. I was 23 years old. I guess I should have been at school, but I wanted to think. I wanted to be somewhere.
That New Year’s holiday lasted 3 days and nights in a large basement darkroom turned flop house for the holiday; it’s open and dark space not too unlike the Uptown Baptist Church basement where I watched over the homeless men. There were various people half-dressed, not speaking English, fish–drinking, chimney-smoking and everybody seemed sexually curious. There were hundreds of Staropramen beer bottles empty and full, used as ashtrays and urinals. After the first 2 days the place would spin so hard that after hours of vomiting I just went into the fetal position by holding on to my winter jacket. Indeed, the appointment at The Czechoslovak Council for Humanitarian Cooperation would have to wait and it did. Five days in a row I went
to the office but the 8 feet high wooden door was built and sealed like it was meant to keep out Armageddon. And all around my wonderment and real concern that I had completely lost my mind by coming over here, there were always people chanting and chanting and chanting, “Havel na Hrad! Havel na Hrad!” Havel to the Castle.
I returned on a Monday and finally up the four spiral floors past the broken elevator. It was winter freezing with the yellow dust but the padded door of the CCHC was open so I walked in with my two thumbs jerked upwards and a triumphant smile to where the office staff was already together and collectively asked, “KDO JSTE?” “Who are you?” My limited time spent at the CCHC offices was really valuable as they put me to work teaching English to handicapped politicos who of course all claimed to know Havel and were organizing for a barrier free Prague. Those first few weeks I was frozen in and out of a time zone and it was one of Havel’s aphorisms “The time for poetry is over and the prose must begin,” which was in the short run and later in the long run the exact bargain with life that I hoped to strike.
I took my first real teaching job in Prague at the Gymnasium Jana Nerudy, and at any chance I got, I used to read and drink at The Golden Tiger with Jiri Pavel. He was an original signer of the Czech civil rights initiative Charter 77 and revealed of himself, “I was a minor poet in a major time.” I didn’t have to mention anything much about my admiration of Havel for Jiri often revealed,
“Yes I drank bear with him 20’s of times.” And after we had a few Pilsners together he confided,
“We all wanted to be Havel but not just anybody could be for everybody like him.”
He had his own part of a table at “The Tiger” and when I met him on late weekday afternoons he always asked, “So have you met Havel yet?” Never a question of the obvious like do you want a beer but always had I met Havel yet. It was our inside joke. And inside jokes are a natural contour in the Czech personality. Jiri was mildly fascinated at all the Americans who were turning up in Prague in the 90’s, but really he knew the score, “Czech beer, Czech architecture, Czech women: now everyone can enjoy.” Yes but there was a price to pay. In the bad old days only those who joined the official communist party could land a decent job. There was never much literature or music available unless you knew someone and whoever you knew might well be taking notes on what you wanted to read or listen to and furtively ask the question: what are you interested in that for?
We talked often; more like he talked and I listened about Czech cultural heavyweights like filmmaker Jan Nemec, and novelist Josef Skvorecky and how they were true creators that were always working under the thumb of the communist central government. I was actually able to purchase Skvorecky’s Miracle Game. It is a book not easily forgotten. And the funny thing is the more time I spent in Prague (I was there for two years) the less crucial it seemed for me to finally meet Havel. I felt by meeting Czechs like Jiri that I could understand what Havel came out with after living in such restrained times and dead-bolted circumstances.
From my political ideals, it should be clear enough that I would like to accentuate culture in every possible way in my practice of politics. Culture in the widest possible sense of the word, including everything from what might be called the culture of everyday life—or “civility”—to what we know as high culture, including the arts and sciences.
One day at “The Golden Tiger”, Jiri Dienstbier came in with a few tough hockey-player-looking dudes acting like bodyguards and sat next to our table. Jiri Pavel didn’t make a move until Dienstbier sat down and wondered who I was. My Czech wasn’t up to the conversation, but Dienstbier was actually the first Czech president elected after The Velvet Revolution and he was eager to start instructing me that,
“To understand anything about Prague you must first experience Kafka.”
A few years earlier in high school I asked my English teacher about Kafka and she replied, “Oh I heard of him.” Now I was sitting in a European hospoda getting a Lit. crash course on a writer who I hadn’t read from an ex-president I had not heard of inside a country that had just been formed a few months back.
I have to come from memory on what Jiri Dienstbier said, “Kafka and Havel and even your president Clinton always fear complacency. It is that we can be vulnerable to: what doesn’t excite us personally anymore.”
I am not sure I caught his drift then either.
So the day had finally come. Someone from The Olga Havel Foundation called my high school and there was to be a big do for big shots at the American ambassador’s residence in swanky Střešovice– Prague 6. It was to be a big Sunday banquet and a lot of expats were attending and that means the full contingency of NGO types. There was a bonanza name card exchange and I joked how suitable the grounds were for a real bonfire. One guy I met and later got to know well named Ken was a lawyer recently married to a Czech woman. He described his position as “I am the dog catcher from the municipality of the Plastic People of the Universe.” That was the name of an indie rock band from Prague that was popular all through the bad years. I explained to him how I thought I spent a few nights with their fan club in a basement when I flew in at The Velvet Divorce.
He asked me, “So have you met this guy?’
“No the Ambassador, Adrian Basora.”
“Uhm no. Is that what his name is?”
The card swapping continued and people were reaffirming how excited they were to meet the Ambassador and then Havel himself. The microphone was tested and the crowd shook quiet as Ambassador Basora began to speak. He welcomed all of us and said he can look out and see Americans come to live in Prague and help this most beautiful city join the modern and free world.
That wasn’t too bad and just when it seemed good timing to introduce Havel (Most of us were straining to see the back of the podium and get that first glimpse), the Ambassador continued, “I know there is someone very special that you all want to meet today, but, considering that I get to live on this wonderful estate, I am going to first talk about me for awhile.”
About him? Well that did it for me. There was nothing velvet about this
balloonhead’s revolution. I didn’t come to live in Prague for enlightenment by some pompous politico appointed by George W. Bush. I took Ken’s business card and existed through the beautifully kept gardens in the back.
I headed towards the city center to find a small wine bar by The Magic Lantern Theater. It is gone now; actually a brothel, but then it was where many of Havel’s plays were performed. It was then Sunday and a little too early for things to be open and I realized that that was that for sure. The first and last time I would have a chance to meet Vaclav Havel. I wasn’t too upset. I just wondered if The Golden Tiger was open. I knew I would stay in Prague for awhile to teach and remain open to life and all its possibilities. And that seems to be what I most deeply feel when I think of Prague and the passing of Havel. The early days of being an expat and becoming a teacher in a place where words and ideas matter and of course the chants of Havel na Hrad- Havel na Hrad –Havel to the Castle!
To read different works by Vaclav Havel: