Vaclav Havel has died, at the age of 75. David Remnick has a very nice tribute to him in the New Yorker.
In a parallel universe, in a luckier realm, Havel would have lived out his life as a Czech epigone of Ionesco and Beckett, a carefree son of privilege, free to write, to pursue his pleasures, to listen to the rock ‘n roll he loved. Instead, like a living figure from Kafka, he was born to a system where absurdity, not law, ruled; calmly, resolutely, he pursued a life of dissidence, led a revolution, and then assumed a home in the Castle, the seat of power in liberated Prague.
In 2003 Remnick wrote a good profile of Havel as he prepared to leave the Presidency of the Czech Republic. Remembering the interview he had with the great man, Remnick writes that
“He gave me as a gift a marvelous book of photographs portraying his life as an artist and politician. He signed it to my wife, who had covered the 1989 revolution in Prague with me, in lime-green marker and then drew a little heart, in red, next to his signature. I have a hard time imagining any other president goofing around like that.”
That rang a bell for me. I met Havel once, just after he was elected President. He was on a State Visit to Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Company, prodded by Harold Pinter and others, gave a party for him in the Barbican to which I was invited. (I wrote a piece about it for the Observer but since this was long before the Web I cannot find my copy of it.) The place was thronged with luvvies (I remember Jeremy Irons squiring Edna O’Brien around, for example; Pinter with Lady Antonia Fraser; etc., etc.) Two things stand out in my memory.
The first was a conversation I had with one of the President’s bodyguards in which I discovered that before he took up his present line of work he had been an actor. So, I asked, how had he qualified for his current duties? He replied that he had always been keen on karate.
My other memory is of someone asking Havel to autograph a copy of his book, Living in Truth. He did so — and drew a picture of a heart alongside his signature. Like Remnick many years later I came away wondering how many Heads of State would do such a thing.