Václav Havel: What He Inspired

Ian Berry/Magnum Photos
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 Havel than he did with his own family. In 1992, as Czechoslovakia slid inexorably toward separation, Žantovský left his position (for reasons I will get into later) and, with Havel’s blessing, went on to a distinguished career of his own, first as ambassador to the United States for the new Czech Republic, then as a senator in Prague (where he chaired the Committee on Foreign Relations and sponsored the country’s first Freedom of Information Act), and finally as ambassador to Israel and most recently Great Britain. But they remained in touch and, Žantovský says, Havel “continued to be generous with his time and friendship, across three continents, and whenever the occasion arose.”

I mention these details about Žantovský’s life in part because anyone reading this entertaining, intimate, and moving account of one of the twentieth century’s better-known public figures will learn little about its author. And yet Žantovský’s voice—that of a natural storyteller with an eye for the memorable anecdote, a mischievous wit, an easy intelligence, and a keen sense of balance and fairness—is so engaging that he becomes a presence in the tale he tells.

This was probably not his intention: in his prologue, he makes it clear that he knows the risks involved in writing about a man for whom, he admits, he feels a genuine love. But that love, as he describes it—a combination of profound respect, affection, and trust—is certainly not blind to the foibles and failings of its object; it is more like an intense friendship forged in combat than a purely emotional attachment. On occasions when Havel’s behavior slips into morally or politically questionable territory—his overuse of prescription drugs, his philandering, his support for the invasion of Iraq—you can almost hear the spokesman arguing with the storyteller over how much to explain and how much to simply let stand. In most cases, the storyteller wins.

Žantovský, however, brings deeper qualifications to the job. Almost thirteen years Havel’s junior, he was a member of a cohort of bright young people who were most deeply affected by the creative forces that Havel and his generation of artists and writers released into society as the…

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