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Edward E. Ericson, Jr.

Václav Havel's Improbable Life

How "in" has Vaclav Havel been? Barbra Streisand announced that he could smoke in her presence. Arthur Miller called him "the first surrealist president." Five thousand of America's glitterati gathered at New York's hip Cathedral of Saint John the Divine to inform him of their pleasure at his being one of them. The new celebrity. Flashbulbs popped, and one published photo even had the guest of honor in it. Music flowed—Paul Simon, Dizzy Gillespie, Placido Domingo, Roberta Flack. The podium received a train of speakers. Paul Newman grinned and gushed. Ron Silvers explained to the foreigner that "we" understand, since in our country "we" don't have full freedom, either. Henry Kissinger, Barbara Walters, Susan Sarandon, and who all else spoke of Havel, of themselves and Havel. Everyone spoke except Havel. They spoke of a man who could say, doubtless with no particular event in mind, "I haven't lost my sense of seeing the absurd dimension of things."

This was February 1990, and all Havel had had to do to be welcomed into the ranks of the celebs was to become president of his country. Which, admittedly, he had done in a rather dramatic way, moving from prison to palace, cell to castle, in a matter of months. This was enough to get him a lavish welcome at the nation's other capital, Washington, too, where he got to give a speech to Congress, with a truly foreign accent on morality. In no time, he was installed in the media's shrine du jour as "one of the Ten Most Interesting People in the World," as "the world's ranking political saint." Or, for those preferring caution, "We are getting to be fanatical about (at least, fans of)" him. Havelmania. Vaclav Havel, Superstar.

Now, unquestionably, in this case the popular and the powerful bestowed their kudos on a most worthy recipient. His life story is even more sensational than those who came to it late imagine. His fellow Czech writer, Milan Kundera, who in many ways is his opposite number, said of Havel that "there are ...

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