Reading Václav Havel by David S. Danaher (review)
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Reviewed by
David S. Danaher. Reading Václav Havel. University of Toronto Press. viii, 272. $70.00

Five years after his death, Havel's impact on Czech culture and political life is still profound. But his Trump-like story about an improbable pretender of the throne, who gained the reign over the land, is no more in the centre of attention. There is a demand for a new perspective and truly scholarly approach to his oeuvre and biography, for instance, an analysis of his cross-pollination of literature and politics. And Danaher's Reading looks very promising in this regard.

All four chapters of this book deal with the political dimension of Havel's plays, poems, or essays. The author's stance is even more radical when he treats "Havel's political engagement" – in the first chapter which provides a kind of bestiary of nine literary forms prevalent in Havel's writing – "as a tenth 'genre."' The next chapter presents his plays as a part of the broader "intellectual project" which may lead their audience "to a kind of personal existential catharsis." The most "political" chapter is the third one which focuses on Havel's reframing of the traditional dichotomy between east and west. The last chapter offers a thorough semantic analysis of Havel's keywords to answer the question if "their English translations are indeed equivalent to the meanings of the Czech originals."

What binds these seemingly disparate chapters together is the author's intention "to extend the concept of the appeal to Havel's oeuvre in general." Danaher tries to read Havel as a "mosaic" which has to be pulled out from beneath "the glass in the museum display-case." The archenemy of such a kind of reading, in his opinion, is contextualization, which deprives a given subject of his or her capability to appeal. At this point, I strongly disagree with the author. Proper contextualization is the essential tool for any historical understanding and is not inevitable in opposition to a refreshment of somebody's legacy. But this gap in methodology, I am happy to say, has no adverse effect on the book as a whole.

My overall impression of Reading is that the book is very sympathetic to its subject but that a reader might expect a little bit more polyphony. There is no mention, for example, of Steiner's essay "Václav Havel and the Invasion of Iraq" which deals with the moral ambiguity of Havel's support for Bush's politics, or Rezek's essays from the 1980s, delivering an argument that Havel's use of philosophical terms is inappropriate and confusing.

However, the above-mentioned limitations can turn into advantages if we realize that this book can serve as an excellent introduction to Havel's thought and oeuvre. Reading covers a range of issues linked with his [End Page 301] writing and offers a detailed analysis of some of them. Danaher has written a readable and engaging book which is appealing also to Havel's compatriots as the Czech translation from this year testifies.

František A. Podhajský
Institute of Czech Literature, Czech Academy of Sciences