Monday, June 05, 2006

Reading. Havel.

Late last night I began reading the collected letters of Václav Havel, written to his wife Olga between 1979-1983, when he was jailed as a member of VONS, the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted (what is it with Communists and their love of acronyms?), which had grown out of Charter 77, the Czechoslovak human rights movement, which strove to "monitor the cases of people who have been indicted or imprisoned for expressing their beliefs, or who are victims of abuses by the police and the courts."* I have not read this vast collection of letters for eight years. In fact, the last time I read this book I was in Prague. It was almost exactly eight years ago. I had just graduated from high school; I was not quite eighteen. We found ourselves, quite suddenly, in Prague (it was a fairly spur-of-the-moment trip; my mother had found some bargain airfare on the internet or something), and I had never fallen in love with a city like this before, never would again. I was completely in love with the old stones, the winding streets, the bridges, this beautiful city. The year before I had discovered Kundera; I had a copy of Immortality with me. (That part is a story for another time).

I found Letters to Olga in a bookstore somewhere along the twisting, cobbled streets of Prague, a shop that sold English-language books to tourists and expats. I think I had run out of things to read (my greatest fear while on holiday). On the surface, he talks about reading English books, improving his German, what items his wife should send in her parcels - fruits, vitamins, toiletries, how she should take care of their country house, keep her spirits up, attend to his business. Go to the theater, visit friends, write to him more often. He is concerned about his hemorrhoids (which cause him much pain and which he mentions often), his weight, and doing yoga. (I tried to envision President Havel doing yoga, and could not). The vacation ended; it was our last trip as a family before I would leave for college and a different life (there have been other family holidays since, but it has not been the same). In a year's time I would speak Russian, I would find myself wandering through the White Nights of June in St. Petersburg. It was not until last night that I began reading these letters again. The book belonged to that other, previous life, and I felt a shiver as I opened the pages, found a Czech museum ticket thrust inside as a bookmark.

These collected letters are a record of those times, of one man's experience as a prisoner, of the minutae of everyday life, all of the little things you think nothing about when you have freedom but become so important when they are taken away. But ultimately, they reflect on a marriage, on this relationship, this absolute bond between two people, of love, of something so intensely private that it feels like almost like a violation to read them. But I wonder, if Havel wrote them with the idea that they would someday be read by the whole world? At the same time, they became something more than just letters, they were the only form of writing Havel was allowed, one letter a week. He writes that these letters "gave [him] a chance to develop a new way of looking at [himself] and examining [his] attitudes to the fundamental things in life...[he] depended on them to the point where almost nothing else mattered."* To be a writer, and to be denied the right to write, must be an impossible burden. How lucky that in his wife, and in his letters to her, Havel was able to find this...release.

Compared to so many other letters between imprisoned husbands and devoted wives, those whose stories ended tragically - the Mandelstams, Bukharin and Larina, etc. - there is something less...bleak about Havel's letters. He is hopeful, focused on the time when he can write again, more than just letters, those four pages he is allowed each week. There is not that black despair I found in those other letters, written in another time, another country. There is a lightness, despite the seriousness of his situation, almost a buoyancy. Perhaps it was all that yoga.

*Havel, Vaclav. Letters to Olga. Faber and Faber, London, 1990. pp 3, 8.

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