It’s been nearly 20 years since the first publication of “Disturbing the Peace”, Karel Hvizdala’s transcription of written correspondence with Vaclav Havel from 1985-86. With Havel recently announcing that he has commenced work on an autobiography, it’s an interesting exercise to view how Havel represents himself, his work and his politics before the tumultuous events of the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
Quite a lot of political water has passed under the Charles Bridge in Prague during this time and in his new book Havel will hopefully examine his legacy and impact as the first President of the Czech Republic in some detail. One interesting outcome of this will be how his views and opinions have changed or solidified since the mid 1980’s.
His interview with Hvizdala was carried out at a time when the U.S.S.R was still intact (albeit with the budding prospects of ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’) and Czechoslovakia was a highly regulated communist state.
In “Disturbing the Peace” Havel is at the peak of his political dissidence and gives an honest and bold account of his life.
He fondly recalls him time learning how to write for the theatre and gives excellent insight and advice on writing in general. Regarded by many as one of the great post war playwrights in Europe, he also elaborates on his penchant for absurdist theatre and begins to define how his plays differentiate or contrast with the work of Beckett and Brecht.
Havel is candid when discussing his politics, philosophies and imprisonment in the 1970’s and 80’s. It must be remembered that this book was published in the West at a time when he was still under threat of further imprisonment and this in fact did happen a few years later.
Reading “Disturbing the Peace” also highlights one of the major ironies of his public life. He became much more guarded in his political approach once he took on the office of President. A one time lightning rod for democratic change, Havel was faced in 1989 with the same realities that most western democratic leaders face – how to manage the economy and build infrastructure whilst balancing civil rights and other democratic principles.
Havel stood down as president in 2003 and has spent much time since championing democratic causes in Cuba, the Ukraine and Burma. If nothing else, “Disturbing the Peace” is a reminder of what Havel is capable of saying and achieving and this kind of voice never goes out of fashion.