Friday, December 23, 2011

Vaclav Havel: Without Fake Covers / Yoani Sánchez

Vaclav Havel: Without Fake Covers / Yoani Sánchez
Translator: Unstated, Yoani Sánchez

It came carefully wrapped in a page of the newspaper Granma, but bore no
relation to that official organ of the Communist Party of Cuba. The dull
wrapping was just camouflage, the mask under which a copy of The Power
of the Powerless by Vaclav Havel was hidden. The friend who first
brought it into our home had been ousted decades earlier and was
expiating his crime in some forgotten department of the public library.

Like the Czech playwright and politician, our supplier of "banned
literature" had shown his concern over the entry of Soviet tanks into
Czechoslovakia in 1968. For Havel, his position had cost him the banning
of his work, harassment, and even prison, while our acquaintance had
better luck and only lost his promotion, the possible Soviet-made Lada
car he might have earned, and his wife — who could not stand living with
someone without privileges.

This shared ordeal might have brought about the sympathy expressed by
that habanero in his fifties for the man who would become the first
president of the Czech Republic. He spoke of him as if they had shared
space in Tvar magazine or in Charter 77, with the camaraderie of a cellmate.

Punished politicians have an immediate predisposition to solidarity
among equals, and recognize and admire each other from afar. So, more
than once, in informal gatherings and conversation, the gift-giving
librarian declaimed fragments of Democratic Ideas: The Arms of Freedom.
It was his obsession and also became ours.

Words live fighting with power, culture rarely has access to the
political heights. Its creators wash their hands of it and assert – not
without a certain hypocrisy – that they aren't interested in public
office, that government is something dirty that ends up paralyzing the
pen and muddying the soul. And they have a good point, as the historical
misfortunes of president-writers and artist-ministers confirm.

But still, we must not settle for the reign of the ordinary and the
regency of the mediocre. Fortunately, once in a while creation and
political office are not mutually exclusive, ideological play and the
beauty of language come together in one individual. Coming from the
theater, Vaclav Havel was familiar with the deceitfulness of human
nature, with the certainty of its masks and its moods. Poetry provided
him spiritual armor, an essential inner courage to survive in a
totalitarianism whose favored weapon was the invasion of privacy.

His own literary work probably saved him from suicide, from being
paralyzed by the ostracism this kind of regime directs to
nonconformists. The man of letters never let the political animal get
the better of him. Nor did prison manage to convert him into screaming
leader demanding a rematch from the podium.

He knew that from the other side of the stage the audience could applaud
or whistle when the spectacle ended, he was prepared ahead of time for
the vagaries of popularity. Havel was a scriptwriter. He decided to
write the libretto of his days and left the secret police nothing but
the ability to scribble a few glosses on the margins of his life.

A portion of Cuban intellectuals – who even today won't admit it – was
captivated by this rare specimen of poetic writer and activist. Few
dared to publicly profess their admiration for the leader of Civic
Forum, or to acknowledge that they read his texts. But the truth is that
when certain breezes of Perestroika blew over the official media of this
island, he was one of the most common references among journalists,
novelists and playwrights.

The cult of Havel kept its voice down; only a few of the intrepid, like
our ousted friend, dared to leave the house with one of his books under
their arms… of course it was always wrapped. The Czech president
enlarged the pantheon of banned faces and censored figures. We lost
Havel, as we had lost Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Milan Kundera. Because,
as he himself said, "Between the plans of the post-totalitarian system
and the plans of life there is a deep abyss." We wanted to learn more of
Havel, but in the Plaza of the Revolution they always had other ideas
about what we should know.

Last weekend Vaclav Havel died, just at the time when he was most read
in Cuba. He left and we can't hear his voice in a classroom of our
University, nor listen to his extensive collection of anecdotes about
the years of Soviet control. Raul Castro's government still hasn't made
the slightest public allusion to the death of the Czech democrat, but it
decreed three days of official mourning for the death of the North
Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il.

Of this latter, the official media of his country say that he wrote more
than 1,500 books over the course of his life. None of them, today, is
reading material for us. However, the author of The Garden Party (1963)
and Temptation (1986) is increasingly well known and admired. Like
missionaries of a peculiar religion, many now distribute his works, and
spread his writings across the Island. But, in an irreverent and defiant
gesture, they no longer hide the covers with the monochromatic pages of

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