Barton’s sprightly, readable overview of Havel’s life and work is especially incisive in thinking through Havel’s personality, particularly his shyness, self-doubt and depression and their impact on his sometimes reluctant, sometimes welcome embrace, of a live lived in public. Without judgment, Barton chronicles how Havel’s friendships and relationships molded him as a man and as a thinker.
This is the story of a man who tried to resurrect the spirit of democratic life. He was born into a time of chaos and absurdity, and he took it as his fate to carry a candle into the night. This is his story and the story many others, the writers, artists, actors, and philosophers who took it upon themselves to remember a tradition that had failed so miserably it had almost been forgotten.
Václav Havel (1936–2011), the famous Czech dissident, ex-con, and playwright, was there when a half million people came to Wenceslas Square to demand an end to communism in 1989. Many came to hear him call for a free Czechoslovakia, for democratic elections, and a return to Europe. The demonstrators roared when he spoke. ‘Havel to the castle,’ they chanted—meaning Havel for President. And a few weeks later, Havel became a most unusual President. He was sometimes misunderstood and not always popular, but by the time of his death in 2011, the world recognized Havel as one of the most prominent figures of the twentieth century.
In this intimate and sweeping portrayal of Havel, David Barton reveals the eccentricities of the last President of Czechoslovakia, and the first President of the Czech Republic. Born into one of the most prominent and wealthy families in Prague, he was the constant subject of attention and an artistic eccentric in a family of businessmen. A young Havel and his family was cast by the communist takeover and labelled as class enemies. Like Dante, Havel travelled a dark road that ironically provided the ‘hidden treasures’ he needed not only to reconnect not only to his own ‘ground of being’ but to the traditions of civic society. This biography is the story of Havel’s inward journey in his underground years and thus the story of how Havel, the outsider, became the ultimate insider as president of the nation.
Havel interweaves the stories from Jan Patočka, the twentieth-century Czech philosopher, known for his legendary underground lectures; and Jiří Hájek, a high-ranking member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party who turned against the government and became a mentor and colleague to Havel. Both of these men—one a fervent anti-communist, and the other a former communist official—played a central role in helping Havel form a humanistic opposition to the government.
David Barton has written an expansive and informing portrait of Václav Havel. It is an engrossing read that captures the resilience and eloquence of a man who started as an artist, became a dissident, and eventually a statesman and great leader. The lessons here, restoring democratic ideals in a time of chaos, are more relevant and important now than ever.
David Gilbreath Barton is an award-winning journalist and associate professor of humanities at Northern New Mexico College. From 1996 to 2001, he was founding editor of The Salt Journal, a finalist in the Utne Reader’s Award for best “small magazine” in the nation. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife.