From Playwright to President, and Everything in Between


Vaclav Havel,

The Authorized Biography

by Eda Kriseova

St. Martin's Press, 22.95

"Amid uncertainty and confusion it is good to write and read about a hero," Eda Kriseova writes in her preface to Vaclav Havel, the Authorized Biography. However, when her book was first published in Czechoslovakia, "literary critics attacked me for having written a pretty story, a fairy tale." It is good to talk about a hero in our times. If such a hero could exist, Vaclav Havel would fulfill the requirements. As a longtime friend, artist, and fellow political worker, Kriseova is well qualified to write about Havel's life. Her attitude towards him encompasses both familiarity and reverence. Kriseova does in fact present a fairy tale of a man free of any human foible, a vision of hope incarnate.


Both sides of Havel's family were prominent and aristocratic figures in Czechoslovakia's Old Regime. Such a history only intensified the communist government's discrimination against Vaclav, even in his youth. The Havel family history is truly interesting, but Kriseova devotes too much energy to relaying stories about Vaclav's parents and grandparents. Likewise, her account of Vaclav's own youth tends towards the chatty and overly anecdotal. To be fair, many of these tidbits are surprising and intriguing, especially those about the beginnings of Havel's involvement with Prague underground literary circles.

Havel is a writer first, and has always considered himself such. While still very young he became well known in Prague avant garde theatre. For Havel, absurdist theater presents the individual's life and place within society in modern times. It also provides the framework in which to realize the loss of meaning within society. All of Havel's plays are concerned with the quest for truth and the destruction of personal responsibility. Havel's major theme, in his writings as in his life, is the negation of value and the moral imperative for action by each individual. These are themes he shares with other writers of contemporary Eastern Europe such as Milan Kundera or Czeslaw Milosz. Kriseova excellently illustrates the centrality of these issues to both daily life and the political arena. In Czechoslovakia there can be no doubt that the artistic, the philosophical, or the details of daily life are political.

The "Prague Spring" in 1968, a short period of relative freedom which was abruptly ended by the Soviet invasion, set Havel's political career in motion. The significance of this period in recent Czech history is equalled only by the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989, during which Havel himself assumed the presidency. Kriseova explains how the oppressiveness of the 1950s had suffocated the peoples' voices of opposition. "After a shock, society comes to its senses slowly, one person at a time." Havel entered into an arena which would become increasingly political and further from the artistic circles where he had previously been known. Although Havel had never been aligned with the communist governments, it was the aftermath of the Soviet invasion and the historic drafting of Charter 77 which thrust him into center stage as a voice of political dissidence and change.

Because of his involvement with Charter 77, which questioned the mechanisms of government control, Havel spent most of his time either in prison or under house arrest. His plays continued to win acclaim abroad although they were banned in Czechoslovakia. Kriseova documents each interrogation, trial and prison term and their effects on the government's hold on the people as well as on Havel's development as a spokesperson for his people. Here, Kriseova's narrative combines her own experiences, the experiences of other people in their political circles, and descriptions of Havel's actions and writings. At times it appears that she writes a chronicle of her generation as much as she writes a biography of Havel.

All of the steps in Havel's political ascent are heavily detailed. One feels the incredulousness that Kriseova, Havel, and other felt in 1988 and 1989 at finally seeing their dreams within reach. She does not attempt to hide the difficulties involved in acutually running the country once that euphoria disipated. "The intellectual wants to create ideas, but he doesn't want to repeat them or force them on anyone. Therefore he's not too successful at the practice of politics."

What amazes one about the development of political change in Eastern Europe, and especially in Czechoslovakia, is how the intellectuals and their poetic sensibilities of truth became a public force in the political arena. This is a noteworthy book about a remarkable man in a remarkable time. Given the unimaginable nature of the challenges of Vaclav Havel's life, it would have been difficult for Kriseova to write anything besides a fairy tale, in which, at the last, good wins out over evil.