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Letters to Olga.

Letters to Olga. Vaclav Havel. Knopf, $25. Having been but a baby dissident myself, I never did get to experience the formative hells of a political prison in a workers' paradise. I have no doubt that given time (or the times, those wild mid-sixties) I would have been in an excellent position to do so. In Romania, where I was born, bred, and precociously thought myself a poet, I had been headed that way, along with other writers of my generation, ever since the first thaw of 1963, when Khrushchev's de-Stalinization speech let some savage ghosts out of the bag of authorized history, including the unspeakable Gulag. It was a heady time, filled with the beat of that esprit du temps that saw young people from Bucharest to Detroit shed futures planned by Central Committees in the East or social convention in the West to plunge headlong into the unknown. The hair curtain suddenly became more important than the iron one. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's severity gave way to the avant-garde; Milan Kundera's wonderful art is hidden in that moment in the mid-sixties.

That brief abandon came to an end in Central Europe in the Prague Spring of 1968. A case can be made that the Chicago Democratic National Convention of that year performed the same service for our Western brothers and sisters. But there are differences. The smashing of the counterculture in the United States and elsewhere was mostly a war of images, with a few violent exceptions. For Americans, it was still possible to agitate against the state after 1968; it was just more difficult to be heard. The termination of the Prague spring of 1968 was for Central Europe the distinct end of a great adventure.

From 1968 until 1979, the date of Vaclav Havel's last arrest, paranoia and repression entrenched themselves in the hungover survivors of the sixties. Many writers and intellectuals chose exile to the West or made their apologies and crawled back into the still-warrn cells of the Party. But hardier souls had also been forged during the golden era of dissidence, people who refused to abandon the struggle for democracy and human values. They found themselves locked in a fight with the security apparatus, a body notoriously lacking in subtlety and humor.

Havel, author of this collection of prison letters to his wife, was a central figure of the gradually darkening years of the seventies. In 1978 he cofounded (with Jiri Hajek) Charter 77, an organization formed to further democracy in Czechoslovakia, including monitoring the cases of people indicted and imprisoned for their political views. The Charter's typewritten reports, documenting human rights violations, were widely circulated and carefully read. The philosophical basis of Charter 77 (so named for the number of people who signed it) was an amalgam of the best of sixties ideals: nonviolence, openness, tolerance, democratic participation.

In 1979, six signatories of Charter 77 were brought to trial in Prague. Havel received four-and-a-half years in prison for disseminating unacceptable writings. (At the time of his arrest, Havel was a well-known playwright who had received world-wide attention for The Garden Party, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, and The Memorandum, plays that captured the imagination of the Czech public with their savage dissection of a hopelessly bureaucratic society where the absurd is part of everyday life. The Memorandum was produced by Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1968 and won an Obie.) He served most of his term but was abruptly released in January 1984 while he wasill with a raging fever. Not long after, he emigrated to Canada, and he now lives in Toronto.

Letters to Olga contains the majority of his prison letters to his wife. Some were censored and never delivered, The letters are numbered and dated, to give notice to prison censors that record-keeping was going on. Taken as a whole, they help elevate the abstraction "dissident," or even "dissident writer," to the status of being human, with all its incumbent flaws.

Vaclav and Olga's relationship (her letters are not published here) is not likely to please feminists. It is in many ways a typical sixties relationship, in which a so-called progressive husband grudgingly makes room for the personality of his spouse. The endless instructions, both particular and general, are often embarra"Be cheerful, level-headed, healthy, and sociable, do your tasks conscientiously, keep track of what goes on, don't let trivial matters upset you, think about me and keep your fingers crossed for me, try to get along well with everyone." Elsewhere, he instructs Olga on how to do her hair.

But as the letters go on, the relationship changes. The irritations of the first letters, which must have been the tenor of their pre-prison relationship, give way to respect and even affection. I was reminded that the feminist critique in the United States began with an analysis of what was wrong with precisely such committed couples as Vaclav and Olga. I couldn't make up my mind whether I liked the writer of these letters enough to go on, untill became slowly captivated by the story of Vaclav's mind as it rediscovers itself in prison.

Introspection is simple self-defense in prison, and Havel examines himself rigorously, chronicling and classifying his every mood. When the news of John Lennon's assassination reaches him, he experiences that chill of recognition familiar to all of us for whom the music and style of the sixties were an intrinsic part of our thinking. Havel compares Lennon's death to John Kennedy's and finds that he is moved more profoundly by it because Lennon is more intimately a part of himself. In Prague, for example, there is a John Lennon wall, white-washed by the authorities many times over, that nonetheless continues to be scrawled with expressions of freedom in many languages. Isolated by prison, Havel wonders whether Lennon's death is also affecting others as strongly, and is soon confirmed in that belief by an article forwarded to him by Olga. Meditating on the meaning of Lennon's death, he has a generational epiphany. "I do not believe that certain values and ideals of the sixties have been discredited as empty illusions and mistakes. . . ," he writes, "though it is a history of repressions, murders, stupidities, wars, and violence, it is at the same time a history of magnificent dreams, longings, and ideals."

Having come to intellectual maturity during the decade that ended in the Prague Spring, Havel, like his contempory Milan Kundera and many others, is a firm believer in certain givens of that generation: the world is ruled by fearful old men whose vested interests lie in protecting a corrupt power structure; youth and love are the chief enemies of this grotesque tribe of bureaucratic vampires. This core of ideas was held passionately across the borders East and West. The difference-the great difference! -was that the Eastern and Central European youth did not have the luxury of drifting about the world experiencing it. Forced to confront political constraints in every corner of their lives, they became aware of the way in which words like "peace" and "love" turn into their opposites and how a society allegedly dedicated to utopia is in fact a prison.

Born among the shards of post-war Europe under the totalitarian absence of thought imposed by rigid Marxist revision, the children of the sixties availed themselves of all culture. Havel's eclecticism is not solely philosophical. We hear him discoursing seemingly at random on every book that falls into his hands, whether it is a Soviet history bookor an old French novel. Kafka's name comes up quite often, and not accidentally. To Central European writers, Czechs in particular, Kafka was not a writer of allegories or parables. His writings are "truth," pure and simple. Kafka described for all times our bureaucratic nightmare.

Vaclav Havel's letters deliver the reader to a pivotal moment in the history of Central Europe. In what seems like only a few moments before talk of glasnost became commonplace, a voice from the inside is speaking clearly and intelligently about personal and political freedom. What happens next in Gorbachev's experiment depends very much on how freely voices like Havel's will be permitted to speak. As we've seen from recent events in Poland, demands for change may still exceed the goodwill of the Party. At those times it is useful to remember-particularly in the beguiled and easily charmed West-that true change cannot come from the top. Democracy has to unsettle society to much deeper levels. It probably won't be necessary for the whole of Czech or Russian society to be unsettled to the depths to which Havel unsettles his mind. But the honest exploratory spirit that landed him in prison and that produced this book ought to be held exemplary. -Andrei Codrescu

Hidden Illness in the White House

Kenneth R. Crispell, M.D., and Carlos F. Gomez Foreword by Birch Bayh

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The serious illnesses of three presidents-Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy-as well as the injury Reagan received in the assassination attempt reveal our inadequate system for handling presidential incapacity. The authors reveal how the public was kept from knowledge of the seriousness of the situation; they also present startling new information on the severity of FDR's illness and JFK's medical history. 248 pages, photos, $27.50

Nancy Hanks, An Intimate Portrait

The Creation of a Notional Commitment to the Arts Michael Straight

This biography captures the spirit of Hanks's life, above all during the eight years in which she led the National Endowment for the Arts. Hanks took a strong role in forming as well as administering a national arts policy, and her accomplishments have had an enduring impact. 400 pages, photos, $22.50

Duke University Press 6697 College Station Durham, NC 27708
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Author:Codrescu, Andrei
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1988
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