Václav Havel, the courageous leading dissident in the years of Communist control of Czechoslovakia, and more recently president of that country, needs no introduction to the readers of The New York Review. His name has appeared on the pages of the Review in a number of capacities. Known originally primarily as a play-wright, Havel has always been a prolific and engaging writer. His literary output in later years has taken exclusively the form of essays, letters, and published interviews; and after his release from prison in 1983, several volumes of English translations of such materials saw publication, prior to the appearance of the volume here under review.
With very minor exceptions, the materials contained in those volumes were written during the Communist period of Czechoslovak history and reflected Havel’s preoccupation with the tremendous strains that rested upon his life and those of so many others in those tragic years. The volume to which this present discussion is devoted was written in the summer of 1991 and reviewed by the author in early 1992—that is, during his second presidency of that country, now terminated by his recent withdrawal.
It is the first such volume, therefore, to reflect the author’s reactions to the tremendous events, including prominently his own experiences, of the period of liberation. It speaks, however, for the depth and solidity of his thinking that this fundamental change in the political environment occasioned, and required, no significant revision of the convictions and principles that had inspired his earlier writings. These last were simply applied to the new situation; and they seem to have lost none of their relevance or their force in the process.
Leaving aside the first section of the book, entitled “Politics, Morality, and Civility” (which was placed last in the original Czech edition and will be given similar place here), the first material to meet the reader’s eye is the long section (the longest in the book) that deals, under the title “In a Time of Transition,” with the internal political problems of the Czechoslovak state as they presented themselves to Havel during his second presidency, when the book was written. Much of this section is devoted to constitutional problems. The present constitution, inherited from the Communist period, being plainly unsuitable for the present era, Havel, a strong opponent of proportional representation and advocate of the strengthening of the presidency, pressed hard, while president, for the early preparation of a new one. But this question soon became en-meshed with the problem (among others) of Slovak separatism; and pending a resolution of that problem, no serious progress in the constitutional question was possible.
This being the case, it was not surprising that a large portion of this first section of Havel’s book was addressed to the future of the Czech-Slovak relationship. And an agonizing matter this was for a man of Havel’s generous impulses, torn between a broad-minded sympathy and understanding for Slovak national feeling, on the one hand, and exasperation …