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A Havel biography: Political tragedy?


"Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts," by John Keane. Basic Books. 532 pages. $27.50.

In the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet control, no heroes shine more brightly than Lech Walesa, the valiant electrician who came out of the Gdansk shipyards to lead Poland to freedom, and Vaclav Havel, the bourgeois writer of absurdist plays who made it from prison to the Czech presidency in the 1989 "Velvet Revolution."

History will pair these two, and rightly so, even though Walesa receives only cursory mention in this first full-fledged biography of Havel. Both catapulted to power through the most unpredictable of circumstances. And both have suffered declines in popularity as heady dreams of democracy collided with economic reality and an entrenched ruling class.

Walesa lasted but half a decade as president of Poland, giving way to a supposedly reformist Communist Party.

Havel, vowing to remain in office until his term ends in 2003, is lionized abroad and lampooned at home.

Arch rival Vaclav Klaus waits in the wings advocating market-oriented policies that Havel distrusts as instruments of the powerful against the powerless.

If this were not enough to tickle Havel's sense of irony, he has this biography to contemplate. Consider the title. Using a literary conceit that few readers will appreciate, British author John Keane labels Havel's triumphant life a "tragedy" and, early on, bemoans his subject's "misfortune" for having been born in the 36th year of the twentieth century.

That meant he was 2 years old when Czechoslovakia was sold out to the Nazis, 12 when the Communists seized control after World War II, 32 when Warsaw Pact tanks withered the Prague Spring and 53 when the Soviet collapse gave him the means to win the presidency of his country. He provided a decade of fledgling democracy and brought the Czech Republic solidly into the West through NATO and the European Union.

Those were merely the external events of a life lived in interesting times. The internals reveal that rare and wonderful combination, a true intellectual with tough political instincts. Havel has had it all: good times in Prague among young friends who early acknowledged his leadership; swift recognition of his precocity as a daring playwright; an intuitive rebelliousness against totalitarian excess; and lots of booze, sex, tobacco smoke, blue jeans, long hair, rock and talk, talk, talk into the wee hours.

Of course, there were failures and bad times: four years in political prison, chronic (self-induced) ill health, aloofness from party politics that allowed destructive bickering among lesser mortals, clumsy handling of Slovakia that led to its secession, vacillation on amnesty for criminals in the old regime, a delight in power that alienated old friends and left him vulnerable to Keane's taunts that he was acting like the "king" of a "crowned republic."

Vaclev Havel need not worry. There will be other biographies that do not rely so heavily on the gossip of ill-wishers or are not so enmeshed in the biographer's own personal constructs. This is an important book. But history deserves a less niggling presentation of a creative, complex, impassioned man who transformed his country and himself.

Joseph R.L. Sterne, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, was editorial page editor of The Sun from 1972 to 1997, and was chief of the newspaper's Bonn bureau from 1969 to 1972.

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