The title betrays the pessimistic tone of the volume. The customary view of Václav Havel is that of an unusual man who could have been very ordinary except that he chose to express ordinary dreams in extraordinary language, suffering imprisonment and risking death for having done so. Keane’s Havel, in contrast, is an unusually flawed individual who could not have functioned normally in ordinary times in any society. His Havel is one who sees absurdity and pointlessness in every situation, who drinks too much, succumbs too easily to women, talks more than he listens, and is close to incompetent in the complex world of practical politics and economics. His Havel is a great man who falls short of achieving his potential; hence, the tragedy of Havel’s life at every stage—as student, as playwright, as husband, as political martyr, and, most of all, as politician.
Keane interjects himself into the story more often than is common for biographers. He believes in the current academic conceit that all narratives are reconstructions, hence fictions. Thus, written history is nothing more than a fiction based on fact, or a “faction.” He thus justifies elimination of entire episodes of his subject’s life and the insertion of philosophical passages more typical of the lecture hall than a book. His concluding chapter, in fact, is an essay on death and its implications for politicians who are aged or ill. His neologisms and judgmental pronouncements may become bothersome, but they are offset by his knowledge of political philosophy and the Czech social, intellectual, and political scene, which he gained through twenty years of experience working in central Europe and five years of writing this book. Awkwardly, although Keane interviewed many of Havel’s friends and associates, he never spoke to his subject personally or communicated with him by correspondence.
Havel was born in 1936 to a family well known in Prague’s merchant and political circles, with a beloved uncle who was prominent in the motion picture industry. His father withdrew to the country to escape the dangers of the Hitler tyranny and then lost what remained of the family fortune when the Communists took power. “The young prince” was taught by his strong-willed and well-educated mother and a succession of female au pairs, then entered into a good local school. By age ten, Havel was an overweight bookworm who was not good at sports or horseplay. Soon enough, the Communists closed the school and assigned him, along with other “class enemies,” to a state school for manual labor training. His parents managed to evade his becoming a proletarian by arranging dancing classes, a comfortable apprenticeship, night school, and private tutoring.
Stalinism held few terrors for the teenaged Havel, who organized a group of friends to discuss forbidden topics. Making himself the head of these “36ers,” he displayed evidence of the talent that would eventually make him the leader of the “Charter 77” dissidents.
In a very real sense, Havel did not “drop out” of the new socialist society; instead, like most members of the middle class and almost all ethnic Germans, he was booted out—as a result, he became aware of the idiocy of this system, its hypocritical claims of fairness and justice, its humorlessness, its narrow-minded and unimaginative bureaucracy, and its utter lack of real inspiration or aspiration. Then he was drafted into what is by its very nature the most humorless and bureaucratic aspect of any modern society—the army. There he took his first steps into the theater. The theater of the absurd, naturally.
Havel’s genius lay in universalizing the themes of the human situation he observed in his homeland. The individual is trapped not merely in communism, but in the modern world, in the processes of a society that limits choices, in the reality of a human existence that frustrates doing the best with the choices that are made. Stalinism and the Cold War hardly appear in his plays, but they were the reality of the daily lives of those who attended the theater; the audiences saw in his works a description of their situation. International audiences recognized, in addition, the anticommunist implications of his themes, but these faded into the background once the magic of the stage caught them up. Havel’s characters were both funny and easily recognized.
European audiences took theater more seriously than did American ones. For them, seeing...
(The entire section is 1820 words.)