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Face to face with Václav Havel Add to ...

You won't find him in the castle these days. You have to walk a few blocks, to a handsome if unremarkable Gothic building on a busy commercial street, and look for the big airy office between the radio station and law firm.

This is modern, post-communist Prague, jammed with traffic, emblazoned with promises of quick money, polluted with French supermarkets and British drunks, sustained by multihued young people, eager to forget its recent past. Its patron saints occupy an awkward place amid the bustle.

Václav Havel is certainly the most awkward saint to have led a nation, a playwright whose literary appetite for bitter ironies was almost choked by the outrageous irony of his own life, who held a president's absolute power while trying to sustain a morally steadfast critique of power for 13 years.

Now, five years into his retirement, he seemingly devotes himself to the full-time task of reeling from the outlandishness of it all.

"It was almost like a fairy tale, if not pure kitsch: Little Honza, although everyone tells him it's hopeless, beats his head against the wall for so long that the wall eventually collapses and he becomes king and rules and rules and rules for 13 long years."

That is his latest one-sentence summary of his life. His passage from rebel artist to imprisoned dissident to regal president of a newly free nation is the great fantasy of regime change, the tale that launched a hundred democracy movements, and Mr. Havel has decided it is time to examine its promises and faults. His new memoir, To The Castle And Back, is both self-defence and self-examination. At a moment when the world's remaining regime changes seem stalled, it's worth visiting Mr. Havel to find out what his life has taught him.

He walks, with deliberate steps, out of his office, where an oxygen tank sits ready to save his tobacco- and prison-scarred lungs, and maintains a presidential poise as he takes a seat amid the souvenirs and relics of his life.

In his jeans and sweater, he could pass for much younger than his 70 years, but he has the movements and disposition of an older man, and holding it all together is an evident effort: He breathes awkwardly, measures his words gingerly. His face still carries the warm bemusement and the wry smile that won the trust of a movement, and then of an entire nation in three elections.

He is still visited by dissidents from Burma, Chechnya, Iran, Cuba, China, keen to find out how it's done, how to have something like his Velvet Revolution in their countries. In 1989, it was somehow done without loss of life, although with considerable chaos and confusion. He still isn't entirely sure how it worked.

"We had no precedent for this experience," he says in a slow Czech monotone. "There was nowhere to learn, nowhere to take lessons from, in a situation where everything was state-owned and in state hands."

His dissident movement is often caricatured as a group of hard-partying slackers who suddenly found themselves with the keys to the palace. He isn't entirely eager to demolish this image.

"We were a group of friends from various branches of the arts who had suddenly found ourselves in a world we had known only from a distance, and which up till then had been merely a target of our criticism and ridicule, and who had to decide very quickly what we were going to do with this world."

It soon became apparent that a revolution, however bloodless, quickly turns into horrendous work.

"We had a clear idea about our ideas, about our visions, but the technicalities of the actual execution, that was a different matter. I mean, there was a lot of improvisation involved. And that's my advice that I give to foreign dissidents; it is a lesson that they can learn from us so that they can avoid our mistakes, … The ideas are important, but it is equally important how you implement these ideas, and to make sure that they correspond to reality."

This was a hard lesson for anyone who had spent a lifetime in the idealistic world of resistance, and he is certainly not the last to experience it. The authoritarian governments of Europe disappeared almost overnight, but after a year of shocked celebration, what was left was hardly a paradise. Here was the question that the world has still not been able to answer: How do you move from a regime-controlled society and economy to a free, liberal democracy without damaging lives, casting millions of people into peril, giving birth to vast private-sector tyrannies of mafia capitalism? In Iraq, Afghanistan, China and Russia, this remains the central question. Even in Prague Castle, it wasn't quite answered.

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