Symbol of my youth
Much has been said about Václav Havel since his death on December 18th, 2011. So much that it would be nearly impossible to avoid repeating the words of others. But still, he was and remains my hero – and for this reason I can’t manage to keep silent in the face of his passing. Therefore, I’d like to begin by sharing a personal memory.
It was 1998, and I was travelling around Central Asia. The train was slowly making its way through the endless Kazakh-steppe, hours upon hours. The car stunk and was overcrowded, and I felt that I was going to faint. A local man was sitting in front of me. It was obvious that he was able to bear the hardships of travel more stoically. As we began to talk he asked me about my country and our way of life. In the end, he wanted to know about the Czech president. I told him – with certain pride, I admit – that it was Václav Havel. It didn’t impress him as much as I expected or hoped. “Is he tall?”, he asked. This question sounded odd, even absurd. But I could read its fatal importance from his face when I answered, “No, he’s quite short.” The man looked sorry, but didn’t write me off completely. He tried again: “Is he healthy?” I had to disappoint him once more: “No, he’s ill, very ill, to be honest.” He looked even more sorry, but still made one last attempt: “How many children does he have?” When I revealed that Václav Havel was childless, he looked at me with compassion and even made a clumsy gesture, as if wanting to stroke my head.
Even though I completely understood this man’s logic, I couldn’t help but feel that my scale of values was slightly superior. Which is not to say that I’m interested in insulting Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh president who prides himself on his bull-like physique and fathering of many children. It only reminds me of why Václav Havel has always been dear to my heart. For me, he came from “elsewhere”. His presence embodied “other” principles and challenged the rules of natural selection. He was weak and powerless, but he won. And although he had no children, his heirs are scattered around the world.
I am probably a typical kid of the Velvet Revolution. I was sixteen at the time of the change, which meant that I was waking up and starting to look around just as the whole country was doing likewise. Václav Havel was the face and the voice of this awakening. The reality into which we woke was often hard to bear, but it was also becoming more and more normal – and normalcy is always bearable, by definition. But Havel’s presence gave hope that things can be different and that it is worthwhile to continually strive for more. As he once said, “Hope is not the belief that something is achievable, but the conviction that something makes sense regardless of whether it is achievable or not”.
In this respect, Václav Havel is the symbol of my youth, and of the things I would never renounce – even though I’m not sure whether they are still here. With his departure, the world has become a different place, and I’ll have to get used to it once again. Who knows, maybe I’ll finally grow up.
The author is a Czech translator, literary critic, previously editor of Host magazine and Visegrad Insight.
This text comes from the first edition of the Visegrad Insight (2012)