Book Review: An Uncanny Era

Václav Havel.

In Prague there are many, many bookstores. Fortunately, there are plenty of books in English to be had in most of them and among the books related to Czech topics which I own, some come from not just one or other of the several specialist English language bookshops but from the wide array of different bookshops. One of the books which I bought most recently is an edited volume entitled An Uncanny Era: Conversations Between Václav Havel and Adam Michnik. I bought the book in the Charles University bookshop, which has books in a wide variety of languages and is well worth visiting. The book has been published by Yale University Press and is edited, translated, and introduced by Elzbieta Matynia.

The book is made up of a series of conversations conducted over the years between Havel, the recently deceased first president of the new Czech Republic and Michnik, a historian and journalist, who is editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza. These interviews (although the first chapter is in fact a part of a correspondence between both men) took place across much of the end of the twentieth century. That first chapter, a set of instructions from Havel to Michnik about the publishing of his essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ was written in 1978, not long after both men, along with other dissidents from both then-Czechoslovakia and Poland met each other on the borders between both countries in the hopes of kindling a friendship. The other conversations span the era from the end of Communist rule in 1989 until just before Havel’s death in 2011. Matynia, in her introduction, titled ‘The Path of Friendship’ writes of the collaboration that followed from the publication of ‘The Power of the Powerless’ ‘illuminates workings of what many considered the hopeless project of building a democratic opposition against both countries’ autocratic regimes. An enduring political collaboration and personal friendship began with the written word at its very center: forbidden books, journals, essays, and poetry.’ (8-9)

Reading the book one gets the impression of this deep but demanding friendship between both – Michnik always ready to probe the ideas of Havel further. Both men were alive to a great deal of what the emerging post-Communist order was coming to in our own era and were naturally, it seems from these conversations, skeptical of one orthodoxy simply filling the vacuum just then created in 1989. So it was in 1991, in the chapter which gives the collection as a whole its title ‘The Uncanny Era of Post-Communism’, when both men met to discuss what had happened in the two years since November 1989, that you find Havel replying to a question on this from Michnik by saying:

I personally do not belong to those who think that the market mechanism is a magical key that will solve everything nor do I think that the free market is a worldview or the meaning of life. I differ in this respect from some right-wing commentators and politicians, and I argue with them about it… I don’t treat it as ideology, as the meaning of life, or as a utopia, but rather as something that has been tested for centuries, resonates with human nature, and functions in a natural way… I treat market mechanisms as something obvious; they are a tested economic principle, but nothing else. This is not a religion. (72)

This is a relatively common thread throughout some of the conversations – all of which ultimately revolve around an anxiety about the future and what comes after what had been the certainties of the Cold War. In an interview from November 2008, forty years after the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact, Michnik asks Havel ‘In Russia pluralism has been annihilated, but in Poland or the Czech Republic we have a choice. But sometimes, I think, it’s a choice between Putinism and Berlusconi-ism. What does the political, ideological, and spiritual map of the post-Soviet countries look like today?’, a question to which Havel responded that the rate of technological change, ‘every week there’s a new generation of cell phones’, which requires people to keep abreast of these in order not to be lost or unable to use them means now that ‘along with the development of this consumerist global civilization grows a mass of people who do not create any values. They are only intermediaries – public relations agents.’ (153).

This part of the conversation, in which they touch upon Obama and his slogan of hope from the election of that month when the conversation took place, also appears prescient about the current crisis that has emerged in Ukraine. Havel, responding to a question from Michnik about Solzhenitsyn’s support of Putin in later life, suggested that

In Russian society there lurks a peculiar complex, an anxiety as to whether it will be taken seriously in the West. This, the biggest country in the world, appears to itself small, and that is why it glances at neighboring states as though it doesn’t know exactly where Russia begins and where it ends. (152)

Similarly, in a piece translated in this weekend’s Irish Times Helmut Kohl, reflecting on Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall, writes ‘that the last years have been extremely sobering. Europe has, to put it mildly, been in a poor state since the transition to the 21st century. This is down to national issues, European missteps and an economic and financial crisis that crashed down on us with enough force to dislodge the essential European idea.’ Something no doubt Havel would agree on. Indeed, both mens alertness to the new political realities extended to the fundamentalism which has also emerged even more entrenched in a post-9/11 world, with Michnik positing the suggestion to Havel that perhaps rather than seeing Communism as an epiphenomenon it was instead ‘one of the faces of fundamentalism’ (63) then emerging. Michnik noted in the lead up to this query the emerging role of religion as politics from the Catholicism of post-Communist countries, the ‘fundamentalist tendencies within Protestantism, for example in America’, along with Muslim fundamentalism and ‘the growing importance of religious parties in Israel’. Throughout the entire book, and across the conversations over this twenty odd year period – into which the editor of the volume happily rarely intervenes, providing instead extensive footnotes at the end of the text – you are left, as by all such books published in this form, in no doubt about the intelligence of both men (and indeed, those who occasionally appear as extras in some conversations) as well as with a sense of being allowed to eavesdrop on an enlivening, engaging and challenging exchange of ideas. In another book published in the conversational mode, Thinking the Twentieth Century, Tony Judt, responding to Timothy Snyder’s assertion that ‘It is striking that east European intellectuals  [like Michnik and Havel] came to these matters from individual and historical experiences which had very little to do with the classic understanding of a bourgeois life or of a liberal education’ noted that this was

Quite so. Havel, to take the most obvious case, is not a political thinker in the conventional, Western sense. To the extent that he reflects any established tradition, he is in the continental heritage of phenomenological and neo-Heideggerian thought… In a way, however, Havel’s apparent lack of intellectual roots worked in his favor. Had he been perceived as just another central European thinker adapting German metaphysics to communist politics, he might have been both much less attractive and much less comprehensible to Western readers… Havel was thus comprehensible to his Czech audience and his foreign audiences at the same time. (235-236)

Judt may well be right on this, but this new book of conversations will allow us to consider and reconsider Havel and Michnik’s  words to each other as they reacted to and interrogated a changing European and global landscape. This November marks the twenty-fifth year since events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. This book will prove important reading for anyone wishing to reflect on where we have been since and where we might yet go.


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