On a warm summer morning at a hotel called Jalta (pronounced Yalta), located on a busy thoroughfare in Prague, my son Ameya sat on a chair in the balcony. He was reading an early Milan Kundera novel, The Joke, in which Communist Party leaders failed to appreciate a light-hearted joke made by a young, enthusiastic party member, and expelled him from the party, ruining his life.
For years, Czech writers have explored the absurd turns life takes, and sometimes life does take unexpected turns, like a playwright leading a revolution. Diagonally across from our hotel was a stately building with a department store facing the road. In 1989, Václav Havel stood at an unassuming balcony in that building, waving at the crowds gathered below. That moment was the acme of the Velvet Revolution, as the communist regime collapsed and Havel, the philosopher-king, ushered in democracy.
My son laughed as he turned the pages of Kundera’s novel. Humour is essential to understanding the Czech psyche. Jaroslav Hašek’s 1920s novel, The Good Soldier Švejk, was a satire on Czech identity. There is subdued humour in the acclaimed Czech film-maker Jiří Menzel’s dark film, Closely Watched Trains (1966), based on Bohumil Hrabal’s novel. Havel’s plays captured the nihilism of the communist era with a playfulness that annoyed the censors. And decades before that, Franz Kafka captured existential angst and absurdity.
I was in Prague to retrace the footsteps of Havel. Of all the world leaders I have been lucky enough to meet—a privilege journalism offers—Havel towered over the rest because of his sense of honour, humility, humour, and honesty. In my limited encounters with him, he had shown impishness as well as forthrightness. I wanted to see the Prague that made him.
Our hotel was at Wenceslas Square, the historic site of political protests and celebrations in the Czech capital. Tanks had thundered and trundled here to tame the Prague Spring in 1968, when Czech leader Alexander Dubček had initiated liberal reforms. The Soviet Union wanted to re-establish authority on rebellious countries of the Warsaw Pact, a defence treaty that brought together communist countries in Eastern Europe with the Soviet Union, to counter the Western military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. There was a nuclear shelter in the basement of our hotel, as if we needed reminding.
Later that afternoon, Ameya, my elder son Udayan, and I went for a walk. We saw an old Soviet tank at the end of the road, and alongside, photographs of the Czech resistance, including Ladislav Bielik’s famous photograph from Bratislava (now capital of Slovakia), of a bare-chested man screaming in front of a tank, as if shouting at it, saying “turn back".
We went with our guide Tereza to Lucerna Palace, between the Štěpánská and Vodičkova streets. The Art Nouveau shopping arcade hums with clubs, theatres and cafés. Still partly owned by the Havel family (Havel’s grandfather had designed it), it has a whimsical statue by David Černý of King Wenceslas astride an upside-down horse, which many believe is meant to symbolize Václav Klaus, Havel’s far less distinguished successor. Černý’s work is a parody of the decidedly statelier statue of King Wenceslas (with the horse right side up) in the centre of the square named after him.
Our next stop was Národní Třída, where the Velvet Revolution began. On 17 November 1989, the police beat up student demonstrators here, and large grainy photographs of the police atrocities are displayed; pedestrians walked around, some blissfully unaware of history.
Whenever asked for his autograph, Havel had a charming habit of quickly drawing a heart alongside. I have a few of his books—he sketched the heart with a pink felt pen, which he would produce unexpectedly from one of his pockets. In the courtyard adjoining the National Theatre, we saw an installation by Kurt Gebauer—a large red heart which looks as if it is throbbing, surrounded by three sculptures of intertwining metallic rings, like the skeletons of hearts, if hearts had skeletons, and, on the wall, Havel’s signature.
Later, we hopped on to a tram and got off near a building that looked as if it was about to collapse. Called the Dancing House, it is designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić. Inspired by the Baroque style, the building looks as though it is crumbling and yet standing firm, as if symbolizing the spirit of the city that has faced regular assaults.
Nearby is the apartment where Havel lived for some time. The apartment had large windows, and Tereza pointed at a building some distance away, from where Czech intelligence kept an eye on Havel. Surveillance today is invisible, lulling the watched into a sense of security. Visible surveillance reminds the one who is observed that he is being observed.
The surveillance was intended to intimidate. Many refuseniks suffered under communist rule. Later that afternoon, we went to the memorial to the victims of the communist era, where Olbram Zoubek had created bronze statues of seven identical emaciated men standing in two lines, parts of their bodies disappearing as you walk by, as if they are being erased. Grim statistics on a metal strip running across the centre of the memorial reminded us of what 41 years of communist rule meant: Some 205,486 were arrested, 170,938 forced into exile, 4,500 died in prison, 327 were shot while trying to flee, and 248 executed.
At a literal level, the men were withering away; at a deeper level, it was a comment on the disappearance of the human spirit. As you moved from the present, the past got obliterated, and the future became a landscape of emptiness.
And yet, in this beautiful city, Havel could laugh at the idiosyncrasies of human nature; Kundera unveiled the hypocrisies of the ruling class; and Kafka revealed the distance between the rulers and the ruled.
To understand an earlier, more humane time, we went to Café Slavia, which faces the Charles river. At its centre is a large, circular table. That’s where Havel met Olga, wooed her, and where they would come often. Olga received his letters and his love; she was his guiding star, his conscience-keeper. That table remains a witness to the personal and the political, the romantic and the revolutionary, the poetic, philosophical, and popular—a bit like the city itself.