In This Review

Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts
Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts
By John Keane
Basic Books, 2000, 532 pp.

To see Havel as a tragic figure, notwithstanding his recent physical misery and the sadness of Czechoslovakia's "velvet divorce," requires poetic license. That is what Keane liberally permits himself throughout this combination of philosophical essay and biography. The trivial (or at least predictable) part of the tragedy is that, in Adam Michnik's words, "the charismatic leader becomes a caricature of himself" under the burdens of office. The larger and more involved argument features Havel's life as the heroic yet ultimately broken object of political power -- power abused by others, power as a beckoning quest, and power as a cross. This is an engaged biography that is not so much for or against the protagonist (although Keane is for Havel) than subordinate to philosophical speculations. Even so, it contains much interesting biographical detail.