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Review: Havel biography flawed, like its subject

In his biography of the Czech president, John Keane explores the lesser-known complexities and failings of Vaclav Havel -- such as his habit of womanizing -- and molds the elements of Havel's life into a modern political tragedy
In his biography of the Czech president, John Keane explores the lesser-known complexities and failings of Vaclav Havel -- such as his habit of womanizing -- and molds the elements of Havel's life into a modern political tragedy  

"Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts"
By John Keane
Basic Books
532 pages

In this story:

An extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances

Tragedy or unfortunate occurrences?

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

(CNN) -- In the 11 years following Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution and Vaclav Havel's election to the presidency, he has been hailed as one of the world's great democratic leaders. A playwright turned politician, Havel was an emblem of successful post-Communist leadership. But, as so often is the case, there is more to the story than the simple triumph of democracy.

In his biography of the Czech president, Keane explores the lesser-known complexities and failings of Havel -- such as his habit of womanizing -- and molds the elements of Havel's life into a modern political tragedy. This technique follows Havel from his bourgeois youth to his early playwriting days, his prison sentence to his presidency, and, finally, to his current state of poor health and impending death. But Keane's conceit doesn't always work.

The biography is segmented into six acts, each with its own title and place. "The Young Prince," "Red Dawn," "Stalin's Shadows," "Late-Socialism," "Velvet Revolution," and "Decline" chronicle Havel's personal and political journeys.

Keane begins a few days following Havel's birth, where the true extent of his bourgeois upbringing is fully pronounced. "His first few months are well preserved as black-and-white home movies ... These granular frames leave behind a striking impression of a child swaddled in high expectations -- a child whose early months were not only coddled but crowned."

So begins the life of the playwright, dissident and politician. Keane continues to chronologically log all the important events in Havel's life -- from his formation of a youthful literary circle christened the Thirty-Sixers to his first plays to his imprisonment for his promotion of Charter 77, a document which pointed to the discrepancies between law and reality in socialist Czechoslovakia. The extraordinary nature of his life is revealed in these events, and the brilliance of his work as a playwright is chronicled through Keane's description of his plays.

An extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances

But this biography is more than just a litany of events. It is the story of an extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances -- Communist Czechoslovakia. Politics in this world is not merely fodder for dinner conversation. Rather, it overshadows all the mundane aspects of life.

Keane is aware of this overarching influence, and the history of Havel becomes a history of politics in Czechoslovakia, with many chapters devoted fully to the topic.

One example occurs near the beginning of the biography, when Havel is still a child. "9 May 1945: the day after the beast War has been pronounced officially dead in Europe. ... The politicians, flanked by journalists, formally declare the wings of violence to be clipped. Men of religion remind the faithful that peacemakers are blessed, and that where there is peace, there is God. Moralists agree that peace is the elevating and healing face of the world. ... But seated at his desk at his parents' country house at Havlov, a little boy trembled." Juxtapositions of history and life events such as this one give added layers and context to Havel's story.

Tragedy or unfortunate occurrences?

Another technique used by Keane to give greater meaning to Havel's life is the structure of the biography, but it's here that "Vaclav Havel" falters.

Keane intends to create a political tragedy out of life events, showing the decline of Havel's status due to his own failings. But Havel is no Oedipus Rex, and the tragedy contained within this work seems to not be tragedy at all, but merely unfortunate life occurrences. Tragedy requires that characters create their own downfall, where, in this case, no downfall has yet occurred. Keane's main vision of decline rests in Havel's ill health. External forces are working on the Czech president more so than any internal failings. Keane constructs tragedy where none actually occurs.

With the importance of form comes the importance of style, and Keane's, like that of most biographers, can be plodding and uninteresting. Fact follows fact follows fact, punctuated by a description of Havel's plays or an interview quote.

Keane does best in those moments where he lets Havel speak for himself, allowing the brilliance of his plays and words to shine through. "[Havel] goes on to denounce Utopian visions, 'radiant tomorrows' he calls them. ... 'What is a concentration camp,' he asks, 'but an attempt by Utopians to dispose of those elements which don't fit into their Utopia?' "

Complicated and flawed, like the man himself, Keane's portrait never reverts to hero worship nor to stone-throwing. It simply tells the story through the lens of politics and history. While it fails as a modern tragedy, "Vaclav Havel" succeeds as political drama, personal narrative and historical document, and the intermingling of these forms gives an extraordinary picture of both the man and the forces that shaped him.

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