Martin Palouš and his role in a Havel absurdist drama

Martin Palouš, photo: David Vaughan

The Václav Havel Library was initially set up in 2004 just after President Havel ended his final term of office. The idea was that it would become a focal point for Havel’s legacy, bringing together material connected with his life and work and with the principles that Havel embraced as playwright, dissident and president. But where does the library go now that Václav Havel has died? David Vaughan talks to Martin Palouš, who took over as director of the library just a few months before Havel’s death in December.

Martin Palouš,  photo: David Vaughan
Martin Palouš is well qualified for the job. He has known Václav Havel for most of his life, was one of the first signatories of Charter 77, and became its spokesman in 1986. Like President Havel, he went on after the fall of communism to have a career in the public eye, first as an academic and then a diplomat, serving as the Czech Republic’s Ambassador to the United States and then as permanent representative to the United Nations. Martin Palouš will certainly be needing his diplomatic skills. Just in the three months since Havel died there have already been several very public rows over his legacy. I met Martin Palouš at the inconspicuous temporary offices of the library in Prague’s New Town to talk about his plans.

“Václav Havel himself in the fall of 2010 asked me if I would be willing to take over this job. He himself started to think about his legacy just right after he left the president’s office.”

And that was back in 2003…

“… in February, I believe it was. And then the idea of The Václav Havel Library was inspired by the American presidential libraries, but obviously American models can only be transferred in a limited way to the Czech Republic. It is a first institution of its kind, so we are trying to find a way to do things.”

And so President Havel himself invited you to direct the library. You must have been aware that it is something of a poisoned chalice, because Václav Havel was such a public figure in this country and there are so many people who feel in some way that Havel belongs to them. He was an important symbol. Now that Havel is no longer with us, you also have to deal with his heirs, with his family, you have constant press attention and you have the question of Václav Havel’s legacy abroad. It’s a pretty tough job. Your predecessors have certainly found it very difficult.

The visualisation of The Václav Havel Library
“Havel’s original profession was as a playwright and absurd drama was the field in which he felt at home and it looks like I was invited to play a role in one of the absurd dramas of Václav Havel in the position of director of his library.”

So from up there somewhere, Havel is directing your life, even after he has gone!

“I think it looks like that. He is still some sort of invisible director of things.”

And you mentioned the core activity of the library being inspired by the example of the libraries that have been set up by former United States presidents. So what is this core idea of the library?

“The core thing is the life and work of a concrete person, of Václav Havel, which means that we collect archival documents which are relevant in this context, and obviously we are trying to establish relationships with the Czech National Archive and so on and so forth. We would like to have some educational programmes, because Václav Havel never wanted to see his institute turned into a kind of monument of his achievements, but also some sort of lively, living place, where people can meet, discuss and keep something like the Havelian tradition alive in the changing circumstances. You can trace our history – the transition from the 20th to the 21st century and from communism to whatever we have right now – through the experiences, writings and knowledge generated by Václav Havel. I wouldn’t like to say that everything he ever said was right, but it’s very interesting to look at that and to start a new round of debate.”

Václav Havel
And, as you say, Havel was vehement that he didn’t want this institution to become a monument to him, but, since he died there has inevitably been an element of that. In what ways has you work changed with the death of Václav Havel?

“Obviously, the life of Václav Havel is before us as a whole, so obviously it is a significant event and obviously we are at the beginning of a new stage in the development of the library. Now the question of his legacy has become important for us, so part of our effort is to turn it into an international institution, an institution that can be measured by international standards.”

And as a former diplomat you must be very aware of the symbolism attached to Václav Havel’s name abroad. This is a legacy which a lot of people are going to be trying to use, or possibly abuse. Already rows have emerged over Havel’s legacy. How can you charter these waters?

“This is what you get. We would like to find meaningful solutions to all the problems. I think it’s understandable, because obviously the death of Václav Havel is seen as a strong emotional moment. So I hope that things are going to calm down. Most likely you have already heard about the controversy about a human rights award to be created in his name. Certainly things like that belong to our sphere of interest. We would certainly like to think about something like that, together with other institutions and individuals…”

There is always a danger that you will all end up competing with one another rather than agreeing that you are serving a single legacy.

The visualisation of The Václav Havel Library
“It was Václav Havel’s intention that his library should be the guardian of his legacy, but at the same time we don’t want to pretend that we should censor or control others, because there is a lot of spontaneity in human society. If there is an initiative to organize a Havel seminar, it should not be controlled by the library. We would like to serve others and not be seen as a protector, censor or inspector of anything.”

In terms of concrete changes, clearly there are two things that have happened since Havel died. One is that his office, which was very active, even after he stopped being president, has been dissolved. Then there is also the question of his personal literary legacy. He must have had a lot of books and correspondence at home. Is that also going to expand the library’s collections or is it very much in the hands of the family?

“Mrs Havel is obviously the main person in that situation. We are trying to collect whatever materials we can get from the family, friends, from wherever, and at the same time we respect the decisions of all players. It’s a question of copyrights and so on and so forth. So, it is our intention for the library to be a real centre of future Havel research, a facilitator of communication, an organizer of events, but obviously, as this is the same thing with everything in life, life is always richer and sometimes mysterious and adventurous, and sometimes transcends the ambitions of any concrete institution.”

You talk about the plans for the future of the library as being in many ways to embrace the spirit of Havel and the legacy of what he believed in. What does that mean concretely?

“We are preparing three international seminars for this year. The first one is to be organized in New York in May, and this will be about Havel and the United States. It will be rather about the American perception of Václav Havel, and we will try a big event in New York City, commemorating Václav Havel’s almost triumphal arrival in New York in February 1990. And there we would like to launch the library as a big project. In September we will have in Budapest, in cooperation with the Central European University, an event called – and this is my working title – ‘Open Society between Past and Future’, because open society was a concept that was very much in circulation in the early 1990s. Obviously, with the arrival of the ‘post-European’ age of the 21st century, it might be interesting to look at this debate. And again, Václav Havel is a central figure here. And the third thing is going to be in Prague. We hope to organize it on December 18, the first anniversary of Havel’s death, and basically it should be connected with the most important European legacy in the post-European world, which is dissident solidarity, human rights and all these things. So, certainly we are trying to explore the areas where we can really be effective.”

You talk about your job as being a little bit like playing in a Havel absurdist drama. There is one paradox that strikes me in the work of the library, and that is that your chief sponsor is one of the best known and more controversial Czech industrialists, the “coal baron” and media magnate, Zdeněk Bakala. There has been discussion as to what extent it is good for the library to be so closely associated with somebody who is so much in the rough and tumble of post-communist Czech capitalism.

Zdeněk Bakala
“Well, first of all I think it would be inappropriate for an institution to criticize someone who is willing to give us this substantive support. At the same time I would say that our strategy should be to become as independent as we can, which means to diversify our sources of finance etc. So with Zdeněk Bakala we have very open communication about that. I think that our relations with Zdeněk Bakala are very open, transparent and obviously I’m not going to comment on how he is perceived in the context of the Czech Republic. But he is one of those people who really give substantial amounts of money to support the non-for-profit sector and the library is very grateful for that.”

There clearly is a certain problem of perception. For example, Václav Havel was a person who was very actively interested in the conservation of historic buildings. Issues connected with that turn up in several of his plays, such as “Redevelopment” or even his last play, “Leaving”. There are architecturally controversial plans to renovate a building on Loreto Square near Prague Castle, to house the library and a couple of luxury flats, one of them for Mr Bakala. You can see why there has been a debate about this being – let’s say – problematic, even if it is just in terms of the image of the library.

“This debate is so twisted and very absurd. There is someone here who is willing to put a substantial amount of money into the preservation of a historic building, and not only the preservation for the sake of preservation, but to give a new life to this particular building. So there is nothing, I think, wrong with that and I would appreciate anyone who would come up with this intention and has his or her own idea how to do something in this area. Obviously, every reconstruction can generate issues which are, as you’ve said, controversial.”

The visualisation of The Václav Havel Library
So you would be in favour of adapting the plans, perhaps, to make them more acceptable to conservationists or the Club for Old Prague, which has been particularly vocal in its criticism. Do you think, given that Havel was a man of consensus, that it would be logical to try to find a greater consensus in the question of the architecture of the building?

“From what I know about it, it seems to me that these problems are problems that can be resolved, and from what I know about these concrete discussions, I think that Mr Tichý, the architect, feels the same…”

But there is a slight irony in the fact that in Havel’s play “Leaving” there is a character, Klein, who has his eye on the outgoing chancellor’s villa, and he has ambitious plans to develop it, to make money out of it and turn it into a residence for himself. With this building on Loreto Square, one of the things that Mr Bakala plans to do is to turn part of it into a very pleasant, very luxurious flat for himself. It would be possible to see a parallel at least…

“I really still don’t get your point. Here there is someone who puts his private money into buying a building and he’s so generous that he wants to give a substantive part of that building to an institution like the library. It seems to me that the whole big picture is scandalously distorted.”

The one thing that seems to be missing now is a Václav Klaus Library, as a counterpoint, given that, all through their post 1989 careers the two statesmen were great rivals. They had very different visions of society, so maybe one day there’ll be a rival institution called the Václav Klaus Library, which will also be part of the legacy of the post-1989 period in the Czech Republic.

The building on Loreto Square
“The missing institution is already emerging, so there will be a Václav Klaus Institute, as I’ve read in the past weeks, and this institute, I’ve read, is going to have a very strong ambition to influence especially the debate about the future of Europe. So there will be a Václav Havel Library and a Václav Klaus Institute here in Prague, and I hope that both institutes will contribute to our public debate and make it more interesting and more alive.”