Václav Havel writes to his wife Olga Havlová on April 3, 1982:
“I have another task for you till the end of my sentence: to build up a philosophical library so that when I return, I shall learn at last how it all is (you have no idea how hungry I am for such reading matter; I miss it a hundred times more than grilled chicken and wine). Buy everything that comes out; comb the secondhand bookstores; buy, or put on long-term deposit in our place, the libraries of emigrating friends…”
Much of Letters to Olga (trans. Paul Wilson) is filled with the mundane, non-literary concerns of a literary man working hard to maintain dignity in a setting engineered to eradicate that virtue. Along with books he asks his wife for a toothbrush, razor blades, cigarettes, chocolate and tea, preferably Earl Gray (“My happiest moment is when I prepare a glass of hot, strong tea, and then sit down with it to read, think or write a letter”). He complains of hemorrhoids and lumbago (“I can't shake the feeling that my organism is only functioning on its word of honor, as it were”). In the early letters, Havel comes across as a nag, and at the same time as a modern-day Boethius, a philosophical quester behind bars. He revels in phenomenology.
In October 1979, the playwright and future president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for “subversion of the republic.” Havel was a leader of Charter 77 and the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. Communism spawned a remarkable library of prison literature, from Koestler, Solzhenitsyn and Aleksander Wat to Armando Valladares’ Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro's Gulag (1985). Such books, not Modernism or “postmodernism,” constitute the signature genre or movement of twentieth-century literature. Much of it, including Havel’s letters, started as samizdat. The Czech critic Jan Lopatka usefully reads Havel’s letters not as documentation of Marxist inhumanity but as a novel of “character and destiny” like those of Balzac and George Eliot. While in prison, Havel’s reading matter is subject to bureaucratic vagaries. He scavenges Stendhal, Pickwick Papers, Max Brod’s biography of Kafka, a Czech volume on the Watergate scandal, To Kill a Mockingbird and Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. While reading an unnamed volume by Musil, he writes: “It’s just what I need: it allows me to be in contact, for a while each day, with cultivated language and a clever text.”
I first read Letters to Olga when the English translation was published in 1988, a year before the Velvet Revolution. I remember a fleeting sense of guilt that I, as a young American, had been in the early years of my journalism career, moving where I wished, reading and writing what I wished, while Havel was held in Ruzyné Prison. Rereading the book now, three and a half years after Havel’s death, I dismiss that earlier guilt as cheap self-indulgence. Havel’s example is more worthy of study and respect than ever before: ''The more slavishly and dogmatically a person falls for a ready-made ideological system or `worldview,’ the more certainly he will bury all chances of thinking, of freedom, of being clear about what he knows.”
Havel also reminds us that prisons take many forms besides the usual brick-and mortar variety. On March 8, 1980, he writes:“I’ve discovered that in lengthy prison terms, sensitive people are in danger of becoming embittered, developing grudges against the world, growing dull, indifferent and selfish. One of my main aims is not to yield an inch to such threats, regardless of how long I’m here. I want to remain open to the world, not to shut myself up against it; I want to retain my interest in other people and my love for them.”