I went to Czechoslovakia to teach English in August 1967, almost exactly a year before the hopes raised by the Prague Spring were crushed by Soviet tanks. I ended up staying ten years, teaching, learning Czech, and, for a while, playing with a rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe. The band members got into serious trouble with the police in the mid-1970s because, in defiance of new regulations, their hair was long, their music was loud, and they played without a state-approved sponsor. An underground community of musicians and artists and writers had formed around the band, and it was through one of them that I first met Václav Havel, briefly, at a private screening in 1974 of some banned short films by the surrealist director Jan Svankmajer. I knew who Havel was, of course, but the screening was illegal and the audience dispersed rapidly when it was over.
When 12 underground musicians, including most of the Plastic People, were arrested in 1976 for antisocial behavior, Havel spearheaded a campaign to get them released. At the time, I clandestinely translated into English for Western reporters some press releases and letters of protest signed by leading dissidents, unaware that I was probably translating something Havel had written. The campaign worked: several musicians were released, and the rest received reduced sentences. The affair of the Plastic People then burgeoned into an important human-rights movement called Charter 77, a manifesto that called on the Husák regime to honor its commitments to human rights under the Helsinki Accords, which Czechoslovakia had signed in 1975. Several of my friends had signed the Charter, so the regime considered me guilty by association, and I was expelled from Czechoslovakia in July 1977.
A small example: One of Havel’s key ideas is that totalitarian power, unlike a classical dictatorship, is impersonal. It is exercised through a system, an ideology, a bureaucracy, a police force, rather than through the personal magnetism of a supreme leader. Havel’s word to describe that agency was samopohyb — literally, “self-motion” — a neologism that derives, I think, from the word samohybny, meaning “self-propelled.” A literal translation, however, would not have conveyed the complexity of Havel’s idea, so I opted for variations of the word automatism and trusted that the context, and Havel’s own elaborations, would get his special meaning across. It was the Husák regime’s “automatism,” its impersonal penetration into every aspect of life, that made it so difficult to resist; but it also, paradoxically, meant that anyone who persisted in standing up to it — like the Plastic People, for instance — would disrupt that “automatism” and ultimately cause the system to break down.
I couldn’t ask Havel about this because he was serving a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence for “subverting the republic,” and though he didn’t know it himself at the time, he was working on his next book. Every two weeks, Havel was allowed to write to his wife, and in 1983 those letters were collected into a book he called Letters to Olga. The prison had strict rules about letter writing. Havel could write only about himself — a subject he had always tried to avoid — and his family, and the slightest transgression meant confiscation. Moreover, to baffle the censors, he often wrote in a deliberately obscure, philosophical, abstract, and convoluted language.
For a translator, this was hell. By the time I started work on Letters to Olga in 1986, Havel was no longer in prison, but I still couldn’t consult with him: I was persona non grata and could not travel to Czechoslovakia; he could not leave. I sent him a list of about three hundred queries by underground post. Two months later, he smuggled out a letter saying he couldn’t help me because he was no longer sure himself what he had meant. His strategy to beat the censors had been too successful: I was on my own, he told me. Fortunately, I was able to talk with close friends of Havel who were now living abroad and were familiar with the difficult Heideggerian idiolect he often used to encode his thoughts. It took me over a year to complete the translation; at times I felt as though I were in prison with Havel myself.
Again, censorship had unintentionally performed a good work: In trying to restrict Havel, the prison authorities had compelled him to open up a rich and hitherto untapped vein in his writing. His next book was refreshingly personal; he had found a way to balance his old clarity with a new and more intimate tone, and translating him was now pure joy. When Disturbing the Peace, his first real autobiographical book, was almost ready to be published, the Velvet Revolution had broken out, the powerless had taken power, and I could at last travel to Prague again. I was inside the Magic Lantern theater on November 29, 1989, when it was announced that the leading role of the Communist Party had been struck from the constitution. It was the point from which there was no turning back.
At a small gathering of the Civic Forum, of which Havel was the acknowledged head, there was champagne, and Havel gave a little speech, thanking everyone who had helped to make this moment possible. I was flabbergasted when he lifted his glass in my direction and thanked me as well, as his “friend and translator.” Two weeks later, he was elected president of Czechoslovakia.
On my last full day in Prague, I had breakfast with Havel in his flat while he ruminated on what was going on around him. “I’ve always been put off by revolutions,” he said. “I thought of them as natural disasters . . . not the kind of thing you can plan for or look forward to. And here I am, not only in a revolution, but right at the center of it.”
It is only now, as I work on his latest book, that I realize how difficult those 13 years in the Prague Castle were for him. The “experimental memoir,” called Please, Be Brief, is an interweaving of three elements: diary entries, an extended interview, and selected excerpts from his presidential memos. The memos were written on the fly, and they are more revealing, in a way, than anything else he has written. They show us his moments of despair and depression and self-doubt, his delight when things go well, and his white-hot and, at times, very funny anger when they don’t. They reveal the mind of a visionary tinkerer at work, a mind as much at home with the minutiae of a state banquet or designing improvements to the Prague Castle as with NATO expansion or the New World Order. I suspect that structurally it’s unlike anything a former head of state has ever written.
But then, none of Havel’s works is conventional. Just as he created an unconventional opposition movement to challenge the hideous conventionality of the regime, and reinvented the office of president to make it a showcase of the new democracy, so each one of his plays or books attempts to reinvent the genre in which it is written. And this is what I think is the most essential truth about Václav Havel: His courage to challenge authority or to accept the rigors of prison — or high office — comes from a deep and unshakable faith in the unique truth of his own experience.