Tuesday, January 27, 2009

To the Castle and Back by Václav Havel

When the dissident playwright Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he soon discovered that there is a world of difference between wanting to run a country and actually running it. This book - an engaging remix of diary entries, interviews and tetchy memos to his staff at Prague Castle - is Havel's response to his critics in the Czech media, who never forgave him for not living up to his own ideals. He tries to explain why he let them down in his dealings with the communists and the secret police, in his relations with the old enemy, Germany, and in being powerless to prevent the break-up of Czechoslovakia. Havel is probably too hard on himself, although his greatest crime in Czech eyes appears to have been marrying a young actress shortly after his wife died. Politicians must flirt with theatricality, he concludes, but whereas one can depend on dramatists to tell a good story, politics is slippery and unreliable and has no narrative. This is a frank and disillusioned account of what happens when idealism meets realpolitik.

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