Paul Wilson and the strange charisma of Vaclav Havel


The Canadian writer, journalist and translator Paul Wilson knows the Czech Republic inside out. He was in Prague in the 1970s, when he got to know many of Czechoslovakia's dissidents and even performed with the legendary underground band, The Plastic People of the Universe, before he was expelled from the country for his supposed subversive activities. Paul Wilson has translated many of Vaclav Havel's writings and has known him since his days as a dissident. Here he remembers joining Havel - then as Czechoslovak president - in the early 1990s on a trip to the Slovak town of Presov, and reflects on the peculiar charisma of the man who went from being dissident to head of state in the space of just a few months.

"He seemed to be very much more at home in a pub setting, arguing across a table, smoking and drinking, than he did in front of a crowd. In Presov, he got up in front of a large crowd. He was sitting at a table in the front. People were asking him questions, and there was this very short man, who had a shy manner, sitting down at the front, looking at his notes, or looking at the table or the floor, speaking in a monotone voice and this huge crowd was hanging on every word. You could tell that he was riveting these people because of his strange charisma. And I thought then - what kind of a man is this? You know, he can barely speak in public, he's very shy, he's very awkward about it, and yet he still has this ability to make people listen to him. And I came to the conclusion then that it was the way he was able to put things simply and very straightforwardly. He would really answer the questions, unlike a lot of politicians who avoid questions. He would actually answer the questions, and you could see him struggling to give an honest answer. So I think that the source of his charisma is the same as the source of his power as a writer. He's just good at putting things into words."