Monday, January 23, 2012

Ave Atque Vale Václav Havel

I haven't yet written a proper eulogy for Václav Havel. Well, I'll never write a proper eulogy for him, but I want to write something from my point of view. He certainly was a personal hero of mine, which puts me in broad company. He was, of course, brilliant across an entire spectrum: writer, philosopher, activist, playwright, politician, theorist, statesman, artist. I guess I must have first heard of him in the late 80s, just before the Velvet Revolution was getting ready to happen. I'm sure the first play of his I ever saw was Audience, a brilliant and powerful one-act based in part on a time in Havel's life when the Communist regime forced him into line work at a brewery, and one of the first Off-Broadway shows I ever saw, back when I was just visiting the City from time to time, before I moved here.

He got a lot of press in the late 80s and early 90s, going from being a dissident who was never far from the threat of arrest, if not actually in prison, to being the President of the country whose leadership he'd helped to topple. Before I became aware of Havel and the Velvet Revolution, what did I know from Czech? I'd knew what Czechoslovakia was, of course, but only in those broad (and often only semi-true) strokes that a Midwesterner was likely to encounter: as a child I had general awareness that it was part of the Communist Bloc and therefore somehow vaguely evil, or at least repressive.

I later learned that it had been the first nation that the Nazis invaded and annexed against its will, but this was not to be confused with fleshed-out knowledge - again, just a vague sense of a place suffering from victimhood: it was a place lumped in with places like Poland that Hitler took over and where he built concentration camps; and then lumped in with Romania, Yugoslavia and, again, Poland as a place under the Soviets' thumb that tended to produce athletes who were successful in Olympic Games.

And then when I was old enough to watch Stripes, I got to see Czechoslovakia as the place that Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and company invade accidentally while on a joyride in the Urban Assault Vehicle they borrowed from Uncle Sam, and got to take misguided pride in the exchange (paraphrasing now)

Bill Murray: "It's not like we're going to Moscow. It's Czechoslovakia! It's like driving into Wisconsin!!"

Harold Ramis: "Yeah? I got the shit kicked out of me in Wisconsin once!"

Funny? Sure. But not much of a lesson in history or international relations.

Then college happened, and Czech got more real. Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, Milos Forman. And Václav Havel and 1989.

Thanks to our trip to Prague in the fall, and especially to the time we spent with Ondrej, we got some more personal insights into Havel and the Velvet Revolution. Saw the café where he met and drank and smoked with other dissidents and writers; of course we went to Wenceslas Square (in Czech, "Václavské Námesti, Václav being the original Czech word for Wenceslas), but it meant a lot more hearing from our tour guide Jakob the story of the body of the 'dead student' that helped to intensify public support for the revolution (and learning that the guy was neither dead nor a student, but actually a member of the secret police who never explained why he did it), and hearing from Ondrej first hand about his going to the protest as a boy with his father, both of them rattling keys - as in the Keys to the Castle, as in "Václav to the Castle," the cry of the people who filled the square and fueled the transition.

Havel had been seriously ill for some time, but it was still a profound loss when he succumbed to cancer at 75. But I don't want to be too morbid in my mourning. I'll post the last couple photo-montages from our Prague trip and leave it at that for now.

Prague 3 from nycmick on Vimeo.
Prague 4 from nycmick on Vimeo.

No comments: