To the Castle and Back — Vaclav Havel

Václav Havel’s latest memoir To the Castle and Back plays as a strange series of paradoxes. It’s elliptical and fragmentary yet thorough and exhaustive; it’s personal and introspective yet political and social; it presents a total picture of Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and the subsequent dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, yet it repeatedly admits to being unable to convey the full story. The narrative of the Velvet Revolution is fascinating even for those who aren’t political junkies. Make no mistake though–To the Castle in Back will be most enjoyed by people who can’t get enough of world politics. The book is larded with dry political details, and Havel the poet and playwright, Havel Lou Reed’s buddy, Havel the Zappa enthusiast–in short Havel as hipster–is largely absent from this text. Instead, we get journalistic accounts of Havel as politician and speech maker interwoven with Havel’s own commentary and even interoffice memos. At times the level of detail is almost excruciating, but Havel seems to understand this. His preface to the book actually serves as the best review (and guide) possible:

If you occasionally feel like putting the book aside because it seems to skirt some of the world-shaking events that I lived through, or to burrow too deeply into exclusively Czech or Czechoslovak matters, I urge you to skip ahead. It’s easy to do because the book is divided not only into chapters but into short sequences, separated by horizontal lines.

Late in the memoir, Havel writes that for all of his life, he’d “longed to write a brutally honest diary, something in the style of Henry Miller, Charles Bukoswki, [or] Anaïs Nin.” And while To the Castle and Back hardly approaches the rough and scandalous material of that mid-century triad, it does contain something just as honest perhaps: an unglamorous, unromanticized accounting of the past told at all times with the caveat that this story is not history writ large, but rather the perspective of someone who lived through it and acted upon it. Honest, moving, often humorous, and, yes, occasionally dull, To the Castle and Back is probably not a book for everyone, but for those interested in the man and the events of the Velvet Revolution it makes a competent introduction.