In Memoriam: Vaclav Havel

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 18, 2011

Death has been especially merciless in the past few days. First, we lose Christopher Hitchens. Now, this.

A fine remembrance from David Remnick:

Havel’s biography–the most remarkable and joyously absurd of biographies–is well known. Or should be. What really ought not to be lost, what enriches the spirit beyond his triumphant, inimitable example, is the writing. What world leader has ever exposed the texture of his own mind with more honesty? His essays, letters, and speeches comprise the spiritual autobiography of a public man. Other dissidents have reached the seat of power–in post-colonial Africa, for example–but none with the same complexity of spirit.

Havel was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996. When the cancer re-appeared, two years later, he quit smoking. It’s a wonder that he lived to be seventy-five. This morning, after learning that Havel had died, I spent a couple of hours re-reading parts of my favorite book of his, his letters from prison to his first wife, the late Olga Havlova. “Letters to Olga,” which was published here in 1983, gives the most vivid sense of the man: his love for his wife; his descriptions of prison and interrogation; his warden, a Hitler sympathizer; thoughts on his polemical disputes other writers and dissidents; the state of everything from his spiritual ruminations to his bowels.

Solzhenitsyn’s motto was “Live not the lie.” Havel’s was the same; it was essential to live within truth, and he always wrote as a free man, forever ignoring the lies and the jackboot of his oppressor.

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