The genre of Disturbing the Peace is both traditional and unique. The book must be considered an autobiography. Throughout, the focus is on Havel as a person: his biography—childhood, milieu, development, schools, influences, career as playwright—as well as his ideas and beliefs. The method of composition is original; the book was recorded rather than written, but the question-and-answer structure is not really that of an interview. The writer Karel Hvizdala, who lived in West Germany, sent a batch of about fifty questions to Havel, who was living in Prague. Havel shut himself up in a borrowed apartment and came out with eleven hours of tape-recorded answers, which he sent to Hvizdala in West Germany. Hvizdala transcribed and edited this, sending the manuscript back to Havel with some supplementary and edited this, sending the manuscript back to Havel with some supplementary ques tions. Havel completed the final version, which contained new material, in June, 1986. The book is a hybrid—recorded, but also written, edited, and with significant contributions from Hvizdala. His questions, howevet; are always short, the answers ample and informal; this is very much Havel’s book. The finished product is unified and reads smoothly.
This is a book about Havel the writer and thinker not about Havel the President of Czechoslovakia. Havel was elected president beforeDisturbing the Peace was translated into English, and Paul Wilson, the translator, tried hard to persuade Havel to update the ending to include his election. The reasons were obvious: The book would have been more striking and would have profited from Havel’s new fame. Havel resisted the entreaties, and rightly so. The material is already ample, and Havel reflects on his ideas as well as all of his most important writings in several genres. In 1990 there was no evidence that these had been changed by his election to the presidency.
Havel stresses in Disturbing the Peace that he is not a politician at all. At the beginning he states, “I’ve never been a politician and never wanted to be.” These lines were written (or spoken) in 1985 or 1986, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. He continued, “I’ve never taken a systematic interest in politics, political science, or economics; I’ve never had a clear-cut political position, much less expressed it in public. I’m a writer, and I’ve always understood my mission to speak the truth about the world I live in….”
The temptation in the West to think of Havel after 1989 as a world-famous figure and president is inevitable; he became the one and the other. It is important, however, to reflect on the reasons that this playwright—whose plays are considered part of the theater of the absurd—was elected in the first place. Disturbing the Peace gives evidence throughout of Havel’s striking personal traits: modesty, his constant struggle against illusion and self-deception, his thoroughness and sobriety, tough-mindedness and courage, concern for the most ordinary people (the greengrocer in the famous passage in his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless”) together with an obstinate refusal to live with “a bent spine.” In addition, there is Havel’s famous humor.
Even when one considers Havel’s career only up to 1986, it becomes clear that several careers coexisted, and it is not easy to distinguish which is, or was, the most important. For example, is Havel primarily a playwright or a writer of philosophical essays? Havel’s essays are all on a consistently high level, although he claims that he is not a philosopher at all but someone who occasionally writes “like a philosopher.” As for his plays, he confesses in Disturbing the Peace that he sometimes has doubts about his ability to write them; the book ends with an expression of uncertainty, depression, and fears. Havel’s modesty, however, is one of his most endearing traits. It is closely related to his insistence on clear-sightedness, and is a strength—it is possible to speak of Havel’s “steely” modesty—not a weakness.
Above all Havel is a playwright, and one of the most interesting features of Disturbing the Peace is that Havel analyzes and comments on all of his best-known plays. He points out weakness in some of them and describes his intentions. The second part of the book is entitled “Writing for the Stage” and might serve as an aid to accompany a reading of his plays. Some of the plays are more successful than others, and it is an interesting critical exercise to compare one’s own preferences and disappointments with those of Havel. Like many authors, Havel tends to favor his more recent work, distancing himself from an early play such as Zahradni slavnost (1963; The Garden Party, 1969). This is understandable, but it might well be that The Garden Party, together withVyrozumeni (1965; The Memorandum, 1967) and the three Vanek plays—Audience (1976; English translation, 1976), Vernistif (1976; Private View, 1978), and Protest (1978; English translation, 1980)—represent Havel’s finest dramatic work. The critic should...
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