You won't find him in the castle these days. You have to walk a few blocks, to a handsome if unremarkable Gothic building on a busy commercial street, and look for the big airy office between the radio station and law firm.
This is modern, post-communist Prague, jammed with traffic, emblazoned with promises of quick money, polluted with French supermarkets and British drunks, sustained by multihued young people, eager to forget its recent past. Its patron saints occupy an awkward place amid the bustle.
Václav Havel is certainly the most awkward saint to have led a nation, a playwright whose literary appetite for bitter ironies was almost choked by the outrageous irony of his own life, who held a president's absolute power while trying to sustain a morally steadfast critique of power for 13 years.
Now, five years into his retirement, he seemingly devotes himself to the full-time task of reeling from the outlandishness of it all.
"It was almost like a fairy tale, if not pure kitsch: Little Honza, although everyone tells him it's hopeless, beats his head against the wall for so long that the wall eventually collapses and he becomes king and rules and rules and rules for 13 long years."
That is his latest one-sentence summary of his life. His passage from rebel artist to imprisoned dissident to regal president of a newly free nation is the great fantasy of regime change, the tale that launched a hundred democracy movements, and Mr. Havel has decided it is time to examine its promises and faults. His new memoir, To The Castle And Back, is both self-defence and self-examination. At a moment when the world's remaining regime changes seem stalled, it's worth visiting Mr. Havel to find out what his life has taught him.
He walks, with deliberate steps, out of his office, where an oxygen tank sits ready to save his tobacco- and prison-scarred lungs, and maintains a presidential poise as he takes a seat amid the souvenirs and relics of his life.
In his jeans and sweater, he could pass for much younger than his 70 years, but he has the movements and disposition of an older man, and holding it all together is an evident effort: He breathes awkwardly, measures his words gingerly. His face still carries the warm bemusement and the wry smile that won the trust of a movement, and then of an entire nation in three elections.
He is still visited by dissidents from Burma, Chechnya, Iran, Cuba, China, keen to find out how it's done, how to have something like his Velvet Revolution in their countries. In 1989, it was somehow done without loss of life, although with considerable chaos and confusion. He still isn't entirely sure how it worked.
"We had no precedent for this experience," he says in a slow Czech monotone. "There was nowhere to learn, nowhere to take lessons from, in a situation where everything was state-owned and in state hands."
His dissident movement is often caricatured as a group of hard-partying slackers who suddenly found themselves with the keys to the palace. He isn't entirely eager to demolish this image.
"We were a group of friends from various branches of the arts who had suddenly found ourselves in a world we had known only from a distance, and which up till then had been merely a target of our criticism and ridicule, and who had to decide very quickly what we were going to do with this world."
It soon became apparent that a revolution, however bloodless, quickly turns into horrendous work.
"We had a clear idea about our ideas, about our visions, but the technicalities of the actual execution, that was a different matter. I mean, there was a lot of improvisation involved. And that's my advice that I give to foreign dissidents; it is a lesson that they can learn from us so that they can avoid our mistakes, … The ideas are important, but it is equally important how you implement these ideas, and to make sure that they correspond to reality."
This was a hard lesson for anyone who had spent a lifetime in the idealistic world of resistance, and he is certainly not the last to experience it. The authoritarian governments of Europe disappeared almost overnight, but after a year of shocked celebration, what was left was hardly a paradise. Here was the question that the world has still not been able to answer: How do you move from a regime-controlled society and economy to a free, liberal democracy without damaging lives, casting millions of people into peril, giving birth to vast private-sector tyrannies of mafia capitalism? In Iraq, Afghanistan, China and Russia, this remains the central question. Even in Prague Castle, it wasn't quite answered.
"The most unpleasant experience was how difficult and what a long time it took for the political culture to renew itself, to regenerate itself, to get rid of all the deformations coming from the totalitarian regime, how long a time it takes for a society to change, not externally but from within, because of course not everybody can be an entrepreneur."
This is one of the themes of his memoir: By suddenly ending the poisoned culture of communism, without a clear road map to the next world, his movement gave rise to an equally poisoned culture he calls "post-communism."
It is an unhealthy embrace of anything that can be considered the precise opposite of communism: the sort of robber-baron capitalism that the West last saw in the 19th century; a society with few safety nets; a glib libertarianism in government that leaves millions helpless. This steely ideology has driven millions of voters in the former communist countries back into the arms of authoritarian leaders, most notably Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prague Castle, which for a dozen centuries has been home to the head of the Czech state, is currently occupied by the living embodiment of this post-communist ethos. Vaclav Klaus, a former Velvet Revolution colleague of Mr. Havel and a long-time rival, today uses the presidency to promote an extreme libertarianism: This week, for example, he published a book titled Blue, Not Green Planet, which argues that global warming is a work of socialist-inspired mythology.
"In the first phase of the collapse of communism, we all wanted to belong to Western civilization and to the democratic world," Mr. Havel says. "We were full of enlightened people, internationalists, cosmopolitans. And after all this had come true, after we had become members of the Western structures we had always wanted to join — to NATO, to the EU, the borders opened.
"And then our demons started to awaken — demons that had been dormant in some of the darker niches, demons of nationalism, demons of authoritarian regimes, reactionary demons, conservative demons, demons of our various obsessions — and this market cult is certainly one of these obsessions. This is basically a reaction to the previous wave, the earlier revolution."
Could this have been prevented? Mr. Havel blames himself, at times, for paying little attention to the mechanisms of privatization in the early 1990s (that task was left to Mr. Klaus, with decidedly mixed results). But he also argues it does not make sense to expect democracy movements to produce well-ordered societies immediately.
"Somebody who is completely prepared for the course of history is a little bit suspicious," he says slowly, raising his eyebrow in a faint smile. "Sure, you can ask yourself, 'Why didn't you have the whole democratic constitution written in advance.' Or, 'Why didn't we have a complete set of laws ready in our hands?' "You can't just outline history in advance — I mean, this is something that the Communists and the Marxists always wanted to do. That was, of course, wrong, and it then ended up creating a prison situation, a gulag-type scenario, because they thought that the world could be designed in advance, and then whatever doesn't fit into the framework they've designed should be chopped off."
Having been chopped off himself a few times, imprisoned on several occasions for as long as four years, bugged and blacklisted and tormented for a quarter-century, Mr. Havel has a natural aversion to all-consuming ideologies, even his own.
As we discuss this, his cellphone rings. It is the doctor attending to his wife of 10 years, actress Dagmar Veskrnova. At 54, she has taken ill and just been admitted to the hospital. "She is not well," he says, heavily.
There is a grave sense of urgency, of completing unfinished business and taking a final reckoning, in everything he does these days. He writes, midway through his memoir: "Why am I in a rush? Why am I going in such a hurry? Perhaps it's only an excuse not to do the research, perhaps not. But I simply cannot shake the feeling that I don't have much time left."
This leads to a happier, but not unrelated, topic: He has just finished writing his 19th play, the first work of fiction he has completed since the fall of communism. It marks the end of a two-decade case of writer's block, perhaps accentuated by his life having become a grand work of absurdist theatre. He is debating where it should first be performed, and fretting.
"I am obviously aware of the fact that the showing of this play will be met with some expectations — some schadenfreude, some curiosity, some speculation," he says. "I feel it, but that's alright."
He feels it in part because it's a play that will almost certainly be viewed as a roman à clef, a tale of a strangely Havel-like figure.
"It's about a politician who lost his function, and the whole world starts to crumble for him," he says, and quickly adds: "But it's not inspired by my experience. I started to write this play before the revolution, before the changes, before I knew what would happen to me, so that's a coincidence of things. It's a bit of King Lear: he lost his kingdom, then his court started to dismantle and everything started to crumble."
He is not a Lear-like figure, he insists (although the comparison makes you wonder: Did he place his trust in the wrong political daughters?). "I'm sure this will bring about some speculations as to who is who and whether it's based on a true story. I don't mind. All my plays have been accompanied with this sort of thing. It will go away, and it will follow the life of all other plays."
Still, even though he feels that his life is well into its fifth act, he is determined to make sure that others are able to repeat his experience. Democratic revolutions have become something of an institution in many parts of the world, and there is a creeping cynicism. Some have gone sour (in Serbia, in Lebanon, in China, possibly in Ukraine), and in many countries there is a cynicism directed at Western governments, including Canada's, that give financial support to dissident movements.
"I'm meeting here and in America with freedom fighters, fighters for human rights, with dissidents, leaders of opposition movements from North Korea, Burma, Chechnya," he says.
"And I always realize how important it is to provide assistance to them from the democratic world. Because we must bear in mind that not everywhere, not in all of these countries, will freedom prevail. There may be some juntas that take over. But the world is colourful, it is changing, it is not predictable. And I think that every effort that is taken to guarantee a dignified life deserves maximum support from those who can give this support."
The world is currently suffering a hangover from the period of multicoloured revolutions, most of them patterned after Mr. Havel's experience. Some have not worked out. In some cases, there is a sense that a lot of money went to people who might not have been much better than the regimes they replaced, or that it is creating hostility toward the donor nation (aid to democracy movements is often described, in the East, as "imperialist"). And there is the risk of offending the authoritarian regime, which may be a potential trading partner. All this has raised a fear, among members of Mr. Havel's generation, that the West is retreating from the idea of supporting dissidents.
"There is the risk that the authoritarian government will be blaming you for imperialist penetration, or the government officials will be grumpy about this support, but this should not be taken in to account. Yes, there is always the risk that the assistance may go into the wrong hands, because it is difficult to distinguish between a really genuine recipient of this help and someone who just mingles around the embassy and who just wants to profit from it — it is really difficult. But it is really important to support these kinds of movements, and the risk is worth it, because it really does pay off. They all bring less suffering to people and to the world in general."
That claim might have been difficult to make in the tough years of the early 1990s, when the chaos of post-communism seemed almost as menacing as the regime it displaced. Certainly, Mr. Havel is deeply critical, in a curmudgeonly way, of the crass consumerism that he sees around him today: "Our countryside is being brutally damaged, and the Czech language has been screaming in pain, the way it gets spoken."
But today, while the Czech Republic is not having easy times, there is a mood of optimism. A generation is coming of age on this side of the old Iron Curtain that experienced neither communism nor the excesses of the privatization period. For Vaclav Havel, these young Czechs, who are often incomprehensible to him, offer a clean break from the impossible dilemmas of his life.
"I don't think that one generation is better than another generation — the ratio of good and bad character features are much the same in any generation," he says. "But the specific type of damage that was caused by communism, the damage to human souls, of course it is something that this new generation of young people won't be tainted with.
"The new generation has other deformities — they declare love through text messages, and other habits that are difficult for me to understand. But when it comes to their relations to their Western counterparts, and the fact that they have no fear of saying what they have in mind, I really hope that they will bring strength to the political culture in this country. That is what it needs."