John Keane | Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts
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Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts

Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts

Hardcover: 325 pages
Publisher: Basic Books (2000)
Languages: English
ISBN-10: 0465037194
ISBN-13: 978-0465037193

This authorized biography of Havel, based on unrestricted access to him, his circle, and even his enemies, is not only the first definitive account of one of the modern world’s great moral and political leaders but also a vivid panorama of the tumultuous events of his times. Havel’s life, like that of his African counterpart Nelson Mandela, has been shaped and determined by the large political shifts of the twentieth century. Readers will taste the moments of joy, irony, farce, and misfortune through which he has lived, and realize that he has taught the world more about the powerful and the powerless, power-grabbing and power-sharing, than virtually anyone else on the world stage.

Vaclav Havel has been revered as one of the century’s great playwrights, dissidents and honest champions of democracy, many of the episodes in his life remain unknown. In this high acclaimed book, John Keane reveals a Havel so far unseen, dramatizing the key moments of joy, misery, triumph and tragedy on which his life has turned.

Václav Havel died aged 75

A poet and playwright, a political writer, dissident and a politician, Havel was the tenth and last President of Czechoslovakia, and the first President of the Czech Republic founded in 1993. For John Keane’s assessment of the life and writings of Václav Havel, click here

Chapter One – The Young Prince (1936-1945) Beginnings – Folly

The learned ability of the newborn to flourish in the world’s fields of power is always fragile and risky. There are times when the cries of innocents are extinguished by stupidity, squalor, hunger, violence. Even when they survive the perils of birth, the newborn find their lives complicated by the power dynamics of families, communities, business firms, whole economies, parties, governments, and states. Such organizations are menacing. They tower over them like colossi. Organizations make the innocent look and feel small. The newborn are turned into the playthings of power relations — of which they know little, let alone can understand, or tame or control.

Young Venoušek’s early years were exactly like this. It has often been said — by card-carrying Communists, sceptical conservatives, guilted liberals — that he enjoyed a comfortable `bourgeois’ upbringing. The sad truth is that his life as `a well-fed piglet’ began badly within a family whose ideals were smashed up by folly, military occupation, surveillance, air raids, war, and totalitarianism. Venoušek took his first steps in the early autumn of 1937 — at precisely the moment that Czechoslovakia was pushed to its knees by the power-posturing of neighbouring states and alliances. Not everybody saw what was happening. Or they foolishly turned a blind eye, as did the most popular contemporary guide for foreign travellers to Prague . First published in the month of Venoušek’s birth, the guide conjured his home town into an exotic haven. The guide marvelled over Prague ‘s green spaces and wooded surroundings; the breathtaking views of the city from the heights of Petrín, Hradcany, and Letná; and the wealth of architectural beauty — Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, rococo, and especially baroque buildings resonating its varied history from the time of the seventh century. Praise was heaped upon the Prague diet of freshwater trout and carp; goose, duck and venison; pilsner, dark beer from Smíchov, fiery plum brandy and agreeable Moravian wine; only a small frown was reserved for the `unexpected’ local sandwiches, consisting of topless slices of buttered bread covered in salami, egg, pickled cucumber, fish or ham. The guide noted that central heating of residences was common; that road traffic moved on the left; and that a system of red letter-boxes for the quick delivery of letters franked with 90-heller stamps functioned well. Although sugar was rationed, commodities like soap and matches were plentiful, while the commercial hub in St Wenceslas Square was often thronged with shoppers, said the guide.

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Reviews Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts

  • Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism – Slavoj Zizek

London Review of Books | Vol. 21 No. 21 dated 28 October 1999

Vaclav Havel’s life would seem to be an unrivalled success story: the Philosopher-King, a man who combines political power with a global moral authority comparable only to that of the Pope, the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela. And just as at the end of a fairy tale when the hero is rewarded for all his suffering by marrying the princess, he is married to a beautiful movie actress. Why, then, has John Keane chosen as the subtitle of his biography ‘A Political Tragedy in Six Acts’?

  • Foreign Affairs

Reviewed by Robert Legvold, July/August 2000

To see Havel as a tragic figure, notwithstanding his recent physical misery and the sadness of Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce,” requires poetic license. That is what Keane liberally permits himself throughout this combination of philosophical essay and biography. The trivial (or at least predictable) part of the tragedy is that, in Adam Michnik’s words, “the charismatic leader becomes a caricature of himself” under the burdens of office. The larger and more involved argument features Havel’s life as the heroic yet ultimately broken object of political power — power abused by others, power as a beckoning quest, and power as a cross. This is an engaged biography that is not so much for or against the protagonist (although Keane is for Havel) than subordinate to philosophical speculations. Even so, it contains much interesting biographical detail.

  • -> The Economist

‘An extraordinary drama and all the more gripping for having at its center a hero with such obvious failings and such human appeal. It is an important political story as well, raising urgent questions about co-operation and resistance, power and democracy.’

  • Review

John Keane’s biography of Vaclav Havel is subtitled A political tragedy in six acts . Havel, of course, came to prominence as a dissident playwright; but come the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, as Eastern Europe toppled into democracy in a few weeks, ending the Cold War and changing the world, Havel was the iconic protagonist, dressed in jeans and leather jacket, leading a coalition of civil rights and political protest groups against a harsh and ultimately enervated regime. This part of the story is a romantic triumph; the tragedy comes with Havel’s later years, clinging to the presidency despite ill-health, unpopularity and the gaffes of his young second wife.

Keane is alert to theatricality–whether as metaphor or in the management of news, propaganda and revolution–and describes Havel as someone who, quite simply, remained on the stage too long. So, this is not a hagiography: but, drawing on a vast number of sources, including contemporary letters, interviews and documents, Keane draws a sympathetic portrait of a remarkable man, whose charisma and cunning at a time of revolution achieved something truly astonishing.

He places Havel in the context of the 20th century’s unique convulsions: Stalinism, Hitler, the Prague Spring and the horrors of Cold War communism. Keane has always been an astute and lucid theorist in his analysis of political structures and the dynamics of violence and political change, and his chapters on 1989 are genuinely moving and exciting. As the subtitle suggests, Keane paints the many faces of Havel with a mixture of hard fact and impressionistic license– tableaux vivants , as he describes them, and challengeable truths.

The result is a thrillingly vivid picture of the man and his times that captures not merely the essences of the revolutionary hero and fading elder statesman but something of the despair and excitement of a troubled country in a violent century.– Robert Potts

  • Roger Bishop – BookPage

Vaclav Havel is one of the genuine political and moral heroes of the last half of the 20th century. A highly regarded and influential playwright in Czechoslovakia, he became the most prominent dissident leader in his country from the late 1960s until the Velvet Revolution ousted the Communist government in 1989. Since then he has served as the elected president of Czechoslovakia and, later, the Czech Republic. Throughout the years of his struggle of harassment and imprisonment by the Communist regime and also in his later role as a world statesman, Havel has written some of the most eloquent and insightful essays of our time about such subjects as the nature of totalitarianism, the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy, and civil society. Download full PDF text

-> The Mark, Vaclav Havel’s Message Resonates Still by Barbara J. Falk (PDF)

-> The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Eastern European Intellectual by Lavinia Stan

Appeared in Government and Opposition, vol. 35, no. 2 (Spring 2000), pp. 265-271. (PDF)

-> Unbalanced Czech Book by Gregg Easterbrook

Appeared in The Washington Monthly, vol. 32. no. 9 (September 2000), pp. 48-49. (PDF)

-> The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 178-181. Reviewed by R. B. Pynsent (PDF)

-> Society, Vol. 39, Issue. 5 (July 2002), pp. 80-87. Reviewed by James E Pontuso (PDF)

-> The wager of Vaclav Havel by Vladimir Tismaneanu

Appeared in Partisan Review, Vol. 68. Issue. 4 (Fall 2001), pp. 650-655. (PDF)

-> International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs), Vol. 76, No. 2 (Apr 2000), p. 387. Review by Rick Fawn (PDF)

-> Publishers Weekly, 247. 26 (Jun 26, 2000), pp. 63-64. reviewed by Mark Rotella; Charlotte Abbott; Sarah F Gold (PDF)

-> Havel Deserves Better: Promises and Failures of a Political Biography By Anthony Kammas

Appeared in East European Politics & Societies, Vol. 15,  No. 3 (September 2001), pp. 722-731.(PDF)

-> The Booklist, Vol. 96, No 21. (July 2000), p 2003. Reviewed by Mary Carroll

Keane, author of Tom Paine: A Political Life ( 1995) and editor of Havel’s Power of the Powerless (reprint 1990), argues the Czech playwright- politician has taught the world “more about the powerful and the power less, power-grabbing and power-sharing, than Virtually any other of his twentieth century rivals .” But Keane views his study as a tragedy because “Havel suffered the misfortune of being born into the twentieth century,” with earth-shaking changes from the fall of the Hapsburg empire through Nazism and Communism to the effort to build democratic institutions. Rather than an inclusive biography, Keane offers a series of tableaux vivants, capturing key moments in Havel’s often dramatic life but emphasizing the impact of external forces he could not control. Although Keane celebrates Havel’s contribution to the analysis of power and to his nation’s post-Communist recovery, he makes clear Havel’s political limitations as well. Where interest in Eastern European democracy is strong, this postmodern assessment of Havel’s career should circulate. Download PDF

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