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21.10.2008 | Václav Havel | Respekt

Two messages










Photo: Peter Župník

I remember those days too. I remember their atmosphere. It is not easy to explain. Looking back, I find it hard to understand myself and sometimes my own past actions surprise me and make me blush. For example, how could I have used the term “socialist literature” even though I must have known that it’s nonsense and that no such thing as a socialist or capitalist literature could possibly exist? How could I have said things in public that I did not believe in private?

I happened to see the new Czech film “Tobruk” yesterday. And for the hundredth time,  I had to ask myself: would I have proved myself in a real battle? While in prison, I often wondered what sort of things and what secrets I might blurt out under physical torture. And, the other way around: what would young historians think if they unearthed a document showing that I had informed on a fellow prisoner? Of course, I could explain that this person was about to commit suicide and that technically this was the only way of saving his life, and they might understand and appreciate what I did. However, this complicated post script of an explanation would always be cowering in the background, behind the terrible original news of my betrayal.

You will have guessed what I am driving at:  even if Milan Kundera really had gone to the police to report that  there was a spy somewhere around, which I do not believe was the case, it is necessary to try, at the very least, to see it through the lens of those days. You did not have to be a committed or fanatical communist to act in this way in good faith that your actions would smooth the way to a better world. You simply may have wondered if, or may have been „nearly sure“ that someone had laid a  trap for you or someone close to you. You simply may not have been a war hero and just thought to yourself: why should I spend ten years in a prison camp just for „knowing and not telling“? Prison camps are for heroes, not for people like me.

I am saying all this just in case that what the young historians suspect really did happen. For my part, I have serious grounds for doubting that Milan Kundera rushed to the local police station to report that somebody told him that somebody had told them that a spy was about to collect a suitcase from somewhere. I don’t think and don’t believe that the events could have unfolded in such a stupid way.

In any case, one thing is clear: in his old age Milan Kundera has become entangled in a thoroughly Kunderaesque world, one that he has so masterly managed to keep at a distance from all his real life. What does it mean? For me, one thing in particular: before we get involved we have to consider all possible consequences that might arise from our actions and whether we can stomach them. If this scandal involved Joe Blogs rather than a famous writer, nothing much would happen. Ergo: to be a good writer and to become famous due to one’s writing is a risky business. However, sometimes you have to take risks. It is in the public interest. If Kundera’s work did not exist, the world would be noticeably poorer off.  While on the other hand, as of 16 October 2008, MK himself would be noticeably better off. Or at least he would be in the same position as Joe Blogs.

Finally, I have two things to say:

One for the young historians:  please take care when judging history! Otherwise you can do more harm than good. Just like your grandfathers did.

One for Milan: try to stay above things! As you know, worse things can happen in the course of one’s life than being defamed by the media.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Czech in the Respekt on 20 October 2008. 

We are grateful to Václav Havel for the permission to publish this text in English.


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