Václav Havel’s legacy

“Havel’s Specter,” my essay on Václav Havel’s philosophy as manifested in his essays, his plays, and his political career, is published in the 9 April 2012 issue of The Nation.

If anyone wants to know what a Czech shopkeeper’s display window under Communism actually looked like, click on the gallery titled “Prague Shop Windows 1976–96” on the photographer Iren Stehli’s website.

For this essay, I consulted Havel’s plays and essays in English, as well as, in some cases, in Czech as published in his collected works, the first seven volumes of which were published by Torst in 1999. For biographical details, I relied on Havel’s autobiographical books, Disturbing the Peace and To the Castle and Back; Eda Kriseová’s campaign biography of Havel (1991; translated in 1993 by me in an earlier life; don’t blame me for all the typos! its original publisher went out of business before the book went to press and it was never proofread); John Keane’s problematic, tonally off-kilter 1999 biography; and Carol Rocamora’s Acts of Courage, which focuses primarily on Havel’s career as a dramatist. I also consulted the New York Times obituary and the chronologies at the back of Jan Vladislav’s anthology Living in Truth and on the website of the Václav Havel Library. Also useful were Hugh Agnew’s The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown and Aviezer Tucker’s The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence from Patočka to Havel. Paul Wilson commented on Havel’s word samopohyb in “Notes from the Underground,” a 2006 article in Columbia magazine. Details of Václav Klaus’s political philosophy are taken in part from his book Renaissance. Klaus claimed that the role of dissidents had been exaggerated in a 15 November 2003 column in Mladá fronta dnes and repeated the claim in a 16 November 2004 interview with Hospodářské noviny as well as in remarks delivered in English in London in 2009. Wilson’s observations about Klaus’s eulogy were published in the New York Review of Books.

Just two days ago, I received in the mail a copy of my friend Jonathan Bolton’s new book, Worlds of Dissent: Charter 77, the Plastic People of the Universe, and Czech Culture under Communism, which I’m eagerly reading and highly recommend! I strongly suspect it will be the definitive account in English of Havel’s ideas about dissidence and the intellectual milieu in which they arose.


Has Milan Kundera been wrongly accused? On 18 October 2008, the New York Times published a second article about the recent discovery of a 1950 police memo that suggests that the Czech novelist may have given information to the police that led to the arrest and 14-year imprisonment of Miroslav Dvořáček, a Czech who was working undercover for a Western intelligence agency. The new Times article, by Dan Bilefsky, describes a further wrinkle in the case:

The mystery became even murkier this week when Zdeněk Pešat, a literary historian and former member of the Communist Party, told the Czech news agency CTK that Mr. Dlask had told him years before that he had reported Mr. Dvořáček to the secret police, most likely because he wanted to prevent his girlfriend from being punished.

As is noted in both the Times article and the original report in Respekt by Adam Hradilek that revealed the existence of the police memo, Miroslav Dlask is not a new character in the drama. He was a close friend of Kundera’s at the time that Dvořáček was betrayed, when the two were in film school together. I related the somewhat byzantine story in an earlier post, but here’s a recapitulation: While on an undercover mission in Prague in 1950, Dvořáček by chance ran into a childhood friend named Iva Militká, whose ex-boyfriend Miroslav Juppa was working undercover with Dvořáček. Dvořáček asked Militká to hold onto a suitcase and promised to come by her dorm and pick it up later that day. Naively, Militká told her then-boyfriend Dlask about the mysterious visitor and asked him to stay away that evening, explaining that Dvořáček would probably want to spend the night. Someone seems to have passed the information along to the authorities. When Dvořáček showed up to claim his suitcase, the police were waiting for him.

Militká told Respekt that she had nightmares about Dvořáček for years afterward, and Respekt reports that Dvořáček himself seems to have believed her guilty of turning him in up until the time of a stroke he suffered earlier this year, which apparently has rendered him incapable of communicating. Dlask and Militká went on to marry, and according to Militká, Dlask admitted to her that he told Kundera about Dvořáček but refused to say more (Dlask died in the 1990s). And it is Milan Kundera’s name that appears on the recently discovered 1950 police report as the informant. The memo is careful to specify that Kundera was bringing third-hand information:

Today at 4pm, there arrived at this police station the student Milan K u n d e r a , born 1 April 1929 in Brno, residing in Prague district 8 in the student dormitory on King Jiří VI St., and he gave the information that in this dormitory there lives a student Iva M i l i t k á , who communicated to the student Dlask, of the same dormitory, that on this day she met in the Klárov neighborhood of Prague with a certain acquaintance Miroslav Dvořáček. The latter, it is said, gave her the custody of 1 briefcase, saying that he would come for it in the course of the afternoon of 14 March 1950. On the basis of this declaration, constable Rosický together with constable Hanton went to the place in question, where they conducted an inspection of the briefcase . . .

Fans and friends of Kundera have naturally wished to find a way to explain the memo away. In the Czech press, almost no one has tried to argue that the memo is a forgery. As Petr Třešňák writes, “To forge a half-century-old police typescript with the appropriate diction, stamps, and knowledge of the context of the case is a feat few could pull off.” Zdeněk Pešat’s new testimony opens another possibility: Maybe it was Dlask who informed on Dvořáček, and Kundera’s name appears on the police memo in error. Or maybe Dlask informed on Dvořáček while impersonating Kundera.

Here, for the record, is a translation of the public statement that Pešat released to the Czech press:

When I read in Tuesday’s Lidové noviny about the developments in the “informer” scandal surrounding Milan Kundera and saw the name Miroslav Dlask and a photograph of Iva Militká, an incident from the spring of 1950 came to mind.

At that time I was in the third year of the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University in Prague and a member of the school’s Communist Party council. Miroslav Dlask turned to me with the communication that his girlfriend (and future wife) Iva had met with a former comrade, whom she knew to have fled to the West and to have returned apparently illegally. Dlask told me that he had notified security. He felt that he had to inform his local party organization about it. And because we had studied aesthetics together and since he knew me better than any other member of the school Communist Party council, he told me. I assumed that Dlask wanted to protect his girlfriend from the possibility, which could have become a reality, that it was disclosed that she had had contact with an emigrant or even perhaps an agent provocateur from State Security forces. To this communication I in no way reacted, and I spoke of it with no one.

I did not meet with Dlask after college and I put it out of my mind. I am a seriously and incurably ill person, in essence a bedridden patient dependent on a respirator. For this reason I am incapable of meeting with anyone and must refuse any interview. Yesterday, after reading the newspaper, I told my wife about the incident with Dlask. We agreed that I would write out everything I knew about these things, and that’s what I have done.

Asked about Pešat’s statement, the editors of Respekt insist that they stand by their story. Of course, it’s possible that Kundera told the local police department about Dvořáček, and that Dlask told their school’s party official about him. It’s easy to reconcile Pešat’s memory with the police memo by imagining that Dlask told Pešat something along the lines of “We took care of this,” meaning that he and Kundera did, and that Pešat either didn’t hear Kundera’s name or forgot about it later. And Pešat’s statement doesn’t help at all in explaining how Kundera’s name showed up in police records. Indeed, when asked to explain it by the Czech news service CTK the next day (in an interview conducted despite his illness), Pešat merely said that he had received a phone call from Kundera that morning and that Kundera was fighting the allegation and rejected it.

Hradilek and others have raised the possibility that Dlask was jealous of Dvořáček, and turned him in (or arranged to have him turned in) to remove a romantic rival. This possibility, too, fails to exonerate Kundera, unless one also supposes that Dlask impersonated Kundera at the police station. But if Dlask wanted his nose clean so badly that he was willing to impersonate Kundera to the police, then why did he tell Pešat in person? And if Dlask wanted his nose clean, isn’t the likelier explanation that he asked his friend Kundera to take the story to the police for him?

Another line of exoneration is the hypothesis that Kundera did turn Dvořáček in, but that he thought Dvořáček was merely a “suspicious person,” and had no idea he might be an undercover agent. “Kundera as the foreman of his dormitory was responsible,” writes Lidové noviny, explaining a theory put forward by Jiří Pernes of the Institute for Contemporary History. “If Dlask informed him of a foreigner in the dormitory, then he notified the police. At that time, it probably didn’t even occur to him that because of this, Dvořáček could receive years in prison. It was for him an episode, and so it’s possible he doesn’t even remember it.” It’s an ingenious explanation but not in my opinion a persuasive one. In the police memo, Kundera, or an informer going by his name, relays Militká’s statement that Dvořáček “had allegedly run off from the army and perhaps had been living in Germany, where he had immigrated illegally.” Whoever turned Dvořáček in knew that Dvořáček was going to be in big trouble.

A number of Czech commenters have complained that Hradilek oughtn’t to have published his article until he found corroborating documents. But what if there’s only one document, and it’s this one? It may be that this is all the evidence historians will get.

Kundera and forgetting

“The author is transformed into a figure in a novel,” writes Martin M. Šimečka, commenting on the revelation that in 1950 Milan Kundera—then a film student, later a world-famous novelist—visited his local police station and informed on Miroslav Dvořáček, a young Czech pilot working undercover in Prague for a Western intelligence agency. After Kundera tipped off the police, Dvořáček was arrested and eventually served fourteen years laboring as a prisoner in a uranium mine, according to a report by Adam Hradilek of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes published in the Czech journal Respekt. Rachel Donadio has a concise account in today’s New York Times. Kundera has denied the charge outright, calling it “a total lie” and suggesting that it’s an attempt at an “author assassination” timed to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair. The headline of the lead story in today’s Lidové noviny: “Is Kundera Lying about his Past?” The newspaper writes that “Milan Kundera affirms that he did not betray the spy Miroslav Dvořáček to the police, but it’s difficult to explain the existence of the police record any other way.” An online follow-up article in Respekt by Petr Třešňák considers the possibilities for reconciling the typescript that incriminates Kundera with his protestations of innocence. Might a friend of Kundera’s have stolen his citizen’s identity card and impersonated Kundera while denouncing the spy? Given that Czechoslovakia at the time was a morbidly hysterical police state, running show trials and torturing prisoners, it’s unlikely anyone would have taken such a pointless risk.

The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has posted an English-language biography of Dvořáček, along with links to documents relating to him in security archives, including the police memo that names Kundera as the informer.

To some American readers it may come as a surprise that Kundera was once a true believer in Communism. In the West, he’s been able to suppress that epoch in his biography, as I explained in “Kundera Is Elsewhere,” one of two articles that I wrote about Kundera for Lingua Franca in October 1999:

In the mid-1980s, the dissident Milan Jungmann accused Kundera of having misled Westerners about the extent of his Communist past—of having “turned his biography into kitsch for uninitiated foreign readers.” “Half of my life I spent as a relatively unknown Czech intellectual,” Kundera had told Philip Roth in 1984. Nonsense, Jungmann countered. In fact, Kundera’s name was “a household word” in the 1950s and 1960s. “He was the best-known spokesman of a wave undermining the borders between socialist and world culture,” Jungmann wrote. Kundera’s poetry, articles, speeches, and plays were eagerly anticipated and widely acclaimed. He won the Klement Gottwald State Prize in 1963 and taught for years in the tony Prague film school that launched the Czech New Wave. In The Joke, Kundera would mock the propaganda surrounding the Stalinist culture hero Julius Fučík, a communist journalist executed by the Nazis. But as Derek Sayer notes in his indispensable history The Coasts of Bohemia (Princeton, 1998), in 1955 Kundera was still so much a part of that culture that one of his own poems portrayed Fučík as a sort of Marxist Christ.

In Kundera’s defense, the literary critic Jan Trefulka pointed out last summer in Lidové noviny that “The political loosening of the 1960s did not happen of its own accord.” A longtime friend of Václav Havel’s, Trefulka, too, was a communist before the Russian invasion turned him into an impeccably credentialed dissident. The Prague Spring owed much to intellectuals of Kundera’s and Trefulka’s ilk, who laid the groundwork for liberalization inside the Party.

These fierce disputes about Kundera’s artistic and political past have been little reported in the West, and here, too, one senses the power of translation’s almost invisible hand. The Russian invasion forcibly changed Kundera from a Czech writer into an international writer, whose books were read mainly in foreign languages. Thanks to circumstance and copyright law, Kundera was given an opportunity that most mature artists can only dream about: He was able to decide which of his works he wanted the world to judge him by. Defensibly enough, he has quarantined his early socialism-tinged work. Hard as it is for Czechs to read Kundera’s late, capitalist novels, it is much harder for Westerners to read his early, communist poetry and essays. The Czechs, as a result, know a Kundera even more muddied, human, and self-contradictory than the rest of the world knows.

1968 and not 1968

The other day, speaking of Russia’s incursion into Georgia, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed.”

May she be right, and may South Ossetia prove not to be the Sudetenland, either. In the meantime, it so happens that next week, on August 21, it will be forty years since Russian tanks rolled into Prague by cover of night to crush the Prague Spring. In commemoration, there’s been a recent outpouring of photographic documentary. The photographer Josef Koudelka has released Invasion 68 (also available through Amazon), a collection of roughly 250 pictures that Koudelka took on Prague’s streets during the occupation. At the time some were published by Magnum anonymously, but most are published now for the first time. There will be an exhibition of the photos in New York starting September 4, and you can look at thumbnails of them on Magnum’s website.

On its website, the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny is showing in seven daily installments the 1968 film Seven Days to Remember, which was made with footage smuggled out of Czechoslovakia. The film was originally narrated in English by Jiří Voskovec, and that narration is still faintly audible, though for the LN readership it has been overdubbed in Czech. More problematic, the files are in Windows Media format, which seems to crash every browser it touches. Still, it’s amazing footage, and on Youtube you can see the first ten minutes of the movie in the original English, courtesy of the film’s current distributor.

If you’re willing to let go of the umbilical cord of English altogether, Youtube also has the Czechoslovak Film Weekly #35 of 1968 (divided, because of Youtube’s 11-minute time limit, into a part one and a part two), which shows motion pictures of some of the same scenes that Koudelka photographed, such as the battle outside Czechoslovak Radio. It’s pretty amazing. Also on Youtube are film images shot by cameraman František Procházka during the invasion, accompanied by recordings of transmissions from besieged-but-still-loyal radio stations in Prague, Pilsen, and elsewhere.