Havel’s regrets over prison comprise “spiritual core” of freshly published lost text

Václav Havel

In 1977 Václav Havel wrote a lengthy report describing his arrest days after the publication of Charter 77 and subsequent, often intense experiences. The fascinating text was lost for decades but having been discovered is being released on Thursday under the title I Hid It Somewhere. I discussed it with Michael Žantovský, director of the Václav Havel Library, publisher of the new volume.

“After his release he wrote a report about the whole history of the Charter 77 and his imprisonment and investigation.

“It was more than 100 pages long. And then it disappeared.

“In the book Disturbing the Peace, which was published in 1986, Havel says, I wrote a report about the whole affair, hid it somewhere and have forgotten where it is – perhaps I will find it one day.

“He never found it, but after his death the grandson of one of his closest friends, Zdeněk Urbánek, discovered the manuscript in the papers of his grandfather and brought it to us.

“And we spent the last year or so researching, editing, annotating and completing the manuscript.”

For me the most interesting section is entitled My Story, where Havel writes about his, as he puts, moral failing when – in prison for the first time – he told the authorities he wouldn’t continue as Charter spokesperson and said he would cease to engage in politics. This episode was known about before, but does the text add anything to our understanding of it?

Michael Žantovský | Photo: Czech Foreign Ministry

“Yes, it does.

“This aspect represents I think the core, the spiritual core, of the whole book.

“As you say, it had been known before that he made this compromise and that he blamed himself for having made it.

“But in this manuscript we, I think, only now fully understand the anguish and the degree of self-reproaching and self-doubting that this provoked in Havel.

“So it gives us a much more plastic picture of the whole thing, and also of the transformation of this doubting Havel into the icon of the Czech opposition and human rights struggle, based on his inner resolution of this conflict.”

So you think the fact that he felt that he had failed on this occasion steeled him for the future?

“I have been absolutely certain about this for some time, and this manuscript, this text, only confirms it, yes.”

What about the writing? Did he take similar care to his writing in, for example, some of the major essays?

“We understand that he spent about six months writing this text.

“He envisaged that there would be additional essays written by some of his colleagues added to the text, which as far as we know never happened.

“So in the book that we’re publishing we attempted to make up for it by adding four essays of our own.

“And it bears the marks of an unfinished product.

Václav Havel | Photo: Václav Havel Library

“I believe that he intended to keep working on it, as he did on his most important essays, but other events must have interfered.

“He became involved in the organisation of the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted and in May 1979 he ended up in jail for four and a half years.

“So it was kind of understandable that he forgot where he put the manuscript.

“But physically he did have a habit of hiding some of his plays and manuscripts, in fear of police searches and of their being confiscated.”

And where does this book stand in the Havel bibliography, if I can say that? Is it a curiosity, or is it important?

“I think it’s an important part of the record.

“There’s no question about it, because in the book he describes the condition of his first imprisonment, which we knew little about.

“He describes some of his interrogators, the circumstances of his comprise and of his release, and the time he spent afterwards, the next three months, when he was horrified of what he thought he had done.

“His friends and contemporaries never judged him as harshly for this as he judged himself, and that I think only speaks to the Havel moral core.”