Paul Wilson’s translation of Bohumil Hrabal’s early stories, Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult, is published this month. (November 2015)

Kundera: Looking for the Joke

Milan Kundera is now eighty-six and may well have intended his latest novel, The Festival of Insignificance, his first in fifteen years, to be an expression of “vesperal freedom,” a striking phrase he (or perhaps his longtime translator Linda Asher) coined a few years earlier to describe the liberation some …

Václav Havel: What He Inspired

Václav Havel (center) at the Laterna Magika theater, Prague, on November 24, 1989, the day that the Communist Party’s leadership resigned. He is with, from left to right, Rita ­Klímová, who became the first post-Communist ambassador to the US; Alexander Dubček, who had been the Czechoslovak premier during the Prague Spring; and the music critic and broadcaster Jiří Černy, an important member of the Civic Forum’s coordinating committee.
Few people have been better positioned to write about Václav Havel than Michael Žantovský. He had known Havel since the mid-1980s, and was his press secretary, spokesman, and adviser for two and a half years, from early 1990 to mid-1992. During that time, he says, he spent more time with …

Adam Michnik: A Hero of Our Time

Adam Michnik receiving the 2010 Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award for public service from Václav Havel, Prague, Czech Republic, January 2011
When Adam Michnik was still a political prisoner following the crackdown on the Solidarity trade union in his native Poland in December 1981, Czesław Miłosz wrote a foreword to a volume of Michnik’s eloquent essays and letters from prison.1 In it, Miłosz invoked the example of Mahatma Gandhi and …

The Road to Rejection

Michael Ignatieff, then leader of the Liberal Party, campaigning in the Canadian federal election, St. John’s, Newfoundland, April 2011
Michael Ignatieff’s eighteenth book sets out to tell a tale that, in its outlines, is almost mythic. A writer and intellectual at the pinnacle of his powers is approached by a trio of shadowy envoys from a former life. These “men in black,” as he somewhat ominously calls them, invite …

Notes from Underground

Ivan Klíma, Prague, 1996
Ivan Klíma belongs to the remarkable cohort of Czech writers and artists who came to the world’s attention in the 1960s and went on to produce some of their best work in the following two decades, either in exile or in conditions of heavy repression at home. They included people of formidable talent but wildly different temperaments, among them Josef Škvorecký, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ludvík Vaculík, Pavel Kohout, Václav Havel, Miloš Forman, and many others not as well known abroad. My Crazy Century is the most extensive autobiography of a member of this extraordinary generation yet to appear in English.

Kicking the Germans Out of the East

Sudeten Germans being expelled from Czechoslovakia, 1945
If you have ever thought that the black hole of horrors that was World War II must by now have surrendered all of its ghastly secrets, perhaps it’s time to think again. A recent book by Colgate historian R.M. Douglas has opened, or rather reopened, yet another tortured and largely …

The Dilemma of Madeleine Albright

Václav Havel and Madeleine Albright at a Plastic People of the Universe concert, Washington, D.C., May 2005
In early March 1998, after the massacre of over sixty Albanian Kosovars by a Serb “anti-terrorist” force at Prekaz, in Kosovo, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued a statement (she called it laying down “a marker”) outlining America’s position: “We are not going to stand by and watch the …

Václav Havel (1936–2011)

Václav Havel visiting Ruzyně Prison, where he had once been incarcerated, Prague, March 1990
The five days following Václav Havel’s death on Sunday, December 18, at his country house, Hrádeček (“the little castle”), were unique in modern Czech history. Almost as soon as the news broke, people began gathering spontaneously in public places, not just to pay their respects, but to talk about what it was they had just lost in the passing of this modest, complex, and courageous man who had been their first post-Communist president.

Václav vs. Václav

When Václav Havel’s memoirs were published in Prague last May, under the title Please, Be Brief, one of the most eagerly anticipated aspects of his story was what he would say about his famously contentious relationship with Václav Klaus, the Czech prime minister under Havel who succeeded him as president …

The Freedom Tower

Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced yesterday that he supported going ahead with construction of the Freedom Tower at ground zero, making official his change of mind about a project that he once called a white elephant. —The New York Times, February 21, 2007 May 19, 2005 I have to admit …

Wonderful Life

On January 29, five days before leaving the public stage, Václav Havel flew to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and the scene of the greatest political humiliation of his career. At the Prague airport, he seemed anxious and slightly nervous as he told Czech journalists that this visit was meant …

A Farewell to Politics

The following speech was given by President Havel in New York on September 19, 2002, at the Graduate Center of the City University, on the occasion of his last official trip to the United States as President of the Czech Republic. I still have vivid memories of the concert almost …

The First Laugh

The following speech was given by President Havel upon receiving the Open Society Prize awarded by the Central European University in Budapest earlier this year. Several weeks ago, after the Czech national team won the World Hockey Championship, there were enormous celebrations in the streets of our country. I followed …

A New European Order?

President Havel delivered the following address in December 1994 at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Budapest. This meeting coincides with the fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the totalitarian systems in our part of the world, and thus the …

An Upheaval for Czech Readers

About a year and a half ago I took part in a conference in Turin on culture in the post-Communist countries. Included on the agenda was publishing. Most of the participants came from Central Europe, and their contributions were like lamentations by the rivers of Babylon: the book market was …

On Rita Klímová (1931–1993)

The life of Rita Klímová, who died shortly after Christmas of leukemia, mirrored in a remarkable way the turbulent history of our country. She was the daughter of Stanislav Budín, an important Czech journalist who was expelled from the Communist Party in the 1930s. He emigrated to the United States …

How Europe Could Fail

The following address was given on October 9 to the General Assembly of the Council on Europe in Vienna. All of us—whether from the west, the east, the south, or the north of Europe—can agree that the common basis of any effort to integrate Europe is the wealth of values …

Unlikely Hero

Alexander Dubcek was a most unlikely hero. Modest, sincere, and cautious to the point of indecision, he rose in 1968 from obscurity to become the leading figure in the prague Spring, a reform movement that breathed new hope into the lives of Czechs and Slovaks, inspired the Western new left, …

The Post-Communist Nightmare

President Havel gave the following speech on April 22, at George Washington University in Washington, DC, at a convocation honoring him with a presidential medal. I remember a time when some of my friends and acquaintances used to go out of their way to avoid meeting me in the street.

Czechoslovakia: The Pain of Divorce

It is not that the Czechs and Slovaks didn’t have enough to do already in trying to create a normal society out of the cold ruins of communism. They have to build democratic institutions that hold together and an economy that works. The expertise they need to do this has …

The End of the Velvet Revolution

The Czechoslovakian elections this June have created a watershed in the country’s history. The two winners—Václav Klaus and his Civic Democratic Party (ods) in the Czech Republic, and Vladimír Meciar and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS)—have both agreed to abandon the federal state for what they claim is …

A Dream for Czechoslovakia

I often think about what our country will be like in ten, fifteen, or twenty years, and I regret that I cannot, for a moment at least, leap over the hard years that lie ahead and look into our future. That life is unfathomable is part of its dramatic beauty …

Paradise Lost

The return of freedom to a place that became morally unhinged has produced something that it clearly had to produce, and therefore something we might have expected. But it has turned out to be far more serious than anyone could have predicted: an enormous and blindingly visible explosion of every …

On Home

The following speech was given on October 26, when President Havel received an honorary degree at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It is a great pleasure for me to receive an honorary doctorate in a town in which many of my countrymen took refuge centuries ago, and which is still …

‘Uncertain Strength’: An Interview With Václav Havel

The following interview was recently conducted in Prague by Dana Emingerová and Luboš Beniak, and first published in the magazine Mladý Svet. What have you found surprising in the world of the powerful? I realize again and again how terribly important the personal characteristics of politicians are, their relationships and …

The New Year in Prague

Dear Fellow Citizens, There was a time when each New Year the president could deliver the same speech as he had the year before and no one would know the difference. Fortunately, that time is past. Time and history have come back into our lives. The gloomy skies of boredom …

On Kafka

In Kafka I have found a portion of my own experience of the world, of myself, and of my way of being in the world. I will try, briefly and in broad terms, to name some of the more easily defined forms of this experience.

Reflections on a Paradoxical Life

(The following is drawn from Karel Hvízdala’s long interview with Havel, which took place in 1986. It will be published later this month as Disturbing the Peace. —The Editors) You’re approaching fifty now; perhaps this might be an occasion for some self-reflection as well— It’s a diabolical task, and the …