The Metaphysician-in-Chief

On February 22, 1990, Vaclav Havel spoke to a joint session of the United States Congress as the newly elected president of a free Czechoslovakia. Just a few months earlier, he had been detained (the last in a long line of arrests) by the StB, his country’s infamous secret police; he said he didn’t know whether he would be going to jail “for two days or two years.” But a mere three weeks later, as the satellites of the Soviet Union began to topple, overwhelming demonstrations throughout the country forced the Communist Party to agree to the first genuine elections since the Soviet-backed coup in 1948. Nearly two months to the day of his last arrest, Havel emerged as the only viable candidate for the presidency, and was rhapsodically elected on December 29, 1989, with a level of consensus unseen since Washington. As a playwright, a philosopher, an essayist, and one of the eminent adversaries of his country’s regime, Havel initially regarded his election as “an absurd joke.” (Philip Roth privately described it as Josef K. making it to the Castle.) And Havel was not the only one: Michael Žantovský (known for his translations of James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Joseph Heller) was elected to the Senate; Eda Kriseová (a journalist and short story writer) became one of Havel’s key advisors; and Jaroslav Kořán (who helped introduce the works of Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski into the Czech language) was elected the mayor of Prague. Never before or since had so many literary intellectuals found themselves in the house of power. Indeed, at the time of Havel’s address in 1990, the reality of Czech politics seemed to be almost the stuff of satire, befitting the sense of irony that had proved such an effective weapon against totalitarianism for nearly half

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