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Writer to politician

Vaclav Havel the politician is widely recognised. Havel the writer also deserves a look, writes Roshen Dalal.

books Updated: Jan 13, 2004 11:35 IST

Vaclav Havel, the ex-Czech president,has just been awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize for keeping alive 'the flame of democracy' at a time when Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule. His involvement in politics has overshadowed the fact that he is also a well-known playwright and political essayist. His writings reflect the struggle and turmoil in Czechoslovakia, particularly before the formation of the Czech Republic.

His first play, The Garden Party, was performed in 1963, and is a satire on the bureaucracy. This was followed by The Memorandum, in 1965. Both these topical plays explore the use of language. In The Garden Party, the protagonist rises in the bureaucratic set up, because he learns to use an 'official' language, i.e., one that makes little sense to most people.

In The Memorandum, the characters use an artificial language, meant to help communication, but are finally unable to communicate at all. In 1968, in his play The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, he again focused on language, and mocked the indiscriminate use of socialist and other terminology.

His plays, translated into several languages, gained popularity abroad. His work was banned for some years in his own country, but in 1978, he was back on the literary scene with three one-act plays, Audience, Private View, and Protest, which reflect, through his character Vanek, his own life and problems as a writer.

Havel was imprisoned in 1979 for his activities against the Communist regime, but released in 1983 because of illness, and his plays after this mark a new trend. In Largo desolato (1985), the main character who is again a writer, is not a straightforward 'dissident' but an individual confused and burdened by the expectations of both friends and enemies. Temptation, which appeared in 1986, is based on the myth of Faust. After this Havel was drawn further into politics. He led the so-called Velvet Revolution, and by the end of 1989, was elected president.

Though he lost in 1992, he was again elected president, now of the Czech Republic, in 1993, and served for two terms till February 2003. During these years, he wrote essays mainly on political themes. He believed that those who spoke freely, and lived in truth, had a revolutionary potential in any society. This was certainly true in his own life, where standing up for what he felt was the truth, finally led to him becoming president, just as it was true of Mahatma Gandhi.

In his Summer Meditations, written in his second term as president, he wrote: 'Despite the political distress I face every day, I am still deeply convinced that politics is not essentially a disreputable business; and to the extent that it is, it is only disreputable people that make it so.' And further, a statement that many would doubt: 'If your heart is in the right place and you have good taste, not only will you pass muster in politics, you are destined for it.'

Havel is not without his critics. Being against Communism, he is popular in the West, particularly in the US. He praises America's role in the world, and supported their action in Iraq. Thus Noam Chomsky finds his views 'morally repugnant', and he has several critics in his own country. A recent controversial biography of Havel by John Keane, Vaclav Havel, A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, is also critical of him, though this in turn has been sharply criticised for a lack of scholarship.

It's rare that a writer and political dissident becomes the president of a country. And perhaps it affects the quality of writing, the objectivity and distance, essential for a writer.

Havel's plays, available in translation, are worth reading, and now that he is no longer president, one looks forward to more of his work.

First Published: Jan 09, 2004 09:45 IST