Writer and former dissident Eda Kriseová worked closely with Václav Havel during his first few years as president. She headed Prague Castle’s Complaints and Pardons Department, then inundated with letters from Czechs who felt for the first time in decades that they could appeal to somebody in authority. Kriseová, who wrote the only authorised biography of Havel, even gave interviews as a kind of stand-in for the much in-demand democracy leader.
“That was a fantastic time. Everybody was cooperating. People were nice to each other.
“We were working very hard. In fact, I think I got to lose all of my personal problems...”
Everything was just go, go, go?
“It was go, go, go, so you didn’t make any problems out of your own issues.
“You in fact got out of yourself, which is a very nice state of mind [laughs].”
Obviously you were close to Havel. He seemed always like a relatively quiet person. How was he able to, I guess quite quickly, learn to be this kind of statesman figure?
“He was in fact a very shy man.”
So how did he somehow overcome that to become a statesman?
“He was pushed into it.
“I don’t know how, but he really slowly became a statesman.
“We were running after history [laughs] – history was too quick and we were not quick enough.
“So everybody was doing his best.
“I went there [to Civic Forum HQ] to help him because I wanted to repair all these publications, all the public talk which came out from Civic Forum.
“We came to the Castle and it was sort of a Kafkaesque experience.”
“I wanted to use another language than this Communist way of writing.”
So you wanted to make sure their texts, their printed materials, were written in a modern, clear, non-Communist way?
“Yes, in a different way. Because the Communists were accustomed to talk but say nothing, which is very modern now – that politicians, not only here but all over the world, are talking a lot but saying nothing.
“You know, these empty words.”
You were an advisor to Havel. What were you advising him about? And was he receptive to other voices?
“Yes, especially at the beginning it was really collective work.
“When he was elected president he asked some people from the coordination centre to follow him to the Castle.
“Of course, you couldn’t say no [laughs] – that was impossible.
“He couldn’t be alone in Husák’s office, because he inherited the whole office of the Communist president.
“And we came to the Castle and it was sort of a Kafkaesque experience [laughs].
“Because there were soldiers with guns everywhere, and all these people who had been serving the Communist regime.”
I think somebody told me that there was even a smell of Husák in the office.
“Yes, there was a smell.
“With Petr Oslzlý, who was also an advisor, we went to his house, which was in the King’s Garden.
“The water was still in his swimming pool and there was his bedroom and his furniture and everything – and there really was a smell [laughs].”
Again, what kind of things were you advising Havel about?
“First of all, all of us were able to give interviews instead of him, to meet journalists, to meet visitors – guests.
“So we were sort of giving information.
“We knew how he would reply, because we were so connected, because we were in fact together 20 hours a day, so we always spoke to the people who came and then he came and shook their hand and had a picture taken with them, whatever they wanted [laughs].”
“The water was still in Husák’s swimming pool and there was his bedroom and his furniture and everything – and there really was a smell.”
So you were like a kind of proxy? You stood in for him?
“All of us, these people who came there with him, were able to alternate him.
“Because it was not possible for him to do it by himself.”
Because he was so much in demand?
“Yes. And I think he was the most famous man in the world at that time, and the most popular.
“In fact, I was meeting mainly writers and people from culture.
“I was also writing lots of texts. Not his speeches, because he wanted to write them himself.
“He always said it wouldn’t come out of his mouth otherwise.
“But I wrote for instance different prefaces and other texts.
“And then after some time we found that people were writing letters. We were getting 7,000 letters per month.
“And there was a queue of people who were standing under the balcony.”
“Yes. Havel pushed me into it. He said, You go there and make order and bring my philosophy into it.
“It was very difficult because there were so many letters everywhere.
“On the third floor there were cupboards full of these letters from people.
“You have to imagine – he was the only authority and there were so many people who had suffered for 40 years and they were waiting for justice.
“So they were writing him letters. Almost all these complaints had something to do with the law, and there was no legislation, you know.
“On one hand, people were suffering a lot.
“But on the other hand they thought that Havel had some magic telephone and he would call somewhere and all the problems of their lives would be solved, which was also a false expectation.”
People would not just send letters but also come in person to the section?
“Yes, they were standing in a queue under the balcony.
“I think Havel was the most famous man in the world at that time, and the most popular.”
“When there was something personal and something serious I had to go there.
“I told them that I was going to the president and I would tell him about them.
“Because there were also lots of people who were mentally ill, especially when there was a full moon.
“I had to persuade these people and to call ambulances…”
Wasn’t there some woman who wanted to strip naked unless Havel came to see her?
“Yes [laughs]. [Karel] Schwarzenberg, as chancellor, called me and said, Look, go down, there are lots of tourists and there is this lady there, so you have to do something with it.
“So I persuaded her to go to the mental hospital. But it was very difficult.
“Or there was a lady who said that she would put her two children in a pot and cook them.
“And there were many people who said, I’m going to jump into the Vltava if I don’t see him.
“I had experience from the mental hospital, which was very good.
“People thought that Havel had some magic telephone and he would call somewhere and all the problems of their lives would be solved, which was also a false expectation.”
“But on the other hand [to do the job] I should have been a lawyer, a priest and a psychologist, you know [laughs].
“Sometimes I think that God helped me, because there were really incredible stories.”
Among your many books is an authorised biography of Václav Havel. What would you say was the biggest misconception that people had about him?
“People thought that it was fun at the Castle, that it was a sort of theatre.
“But it was serious work. And lots of work – sometimes we were there 20 hours a day.”
So it wasn’t all partying?
“No. People thought that it was a sort of carnival, when the Stones and Frank Zappa and people like that were there.
“But I would say he was very serious. He was a man of great responsibility.
“I must tell you sometimes he felt it was too much for him and that it was coming to some disaster, or that the state will not function.
“I remember once I told him, You feel guilty because it’s raining.
“You know, he felt very guilty and he was very responsible.
“There was a lady who said that she would put her two children in a pot and cook them. There were many people who said, I’m going to jump into the Vltava, if I don’t see Havel.”
“I remember when he was already very ill and very weak and I was visiting him at his house.
“It was 7 o’clock in the evening and he said, Excuse me, I have to watch TV [news].
“I said, Why do you watch TV? It’s such shit [laughs]. Why do you suffer so much?
“And he said, Well, I have to – I have to know what’s happening.
‘This was even though it was a few months before his death.”
How do you view the way today there’s a certain section of Czech society who really hate Václav Havel? They have this word “Havloid” and so on.
“I think these are people who have complexes and who didn’t succeed.
“They are looking for an enemy, for somebody who is guilty for the fact that they were not successful.
“They see him as somebody who was rich and got more money.
“And also they felt guilty that they were so easily normalised, that they were collaborating.”
So his kind of moral goodness was like a reproach to them?
“People thought that it was a sort of carnival, when the Stones and Frank Zappa and people like that were there.”
“Yes. They hate him for his morality… Yes, I think he was too moral for them.”
Obviously you couldn’t speak for him and he’s been dead for several years. But still, if you could speculate, how do you think he would view the state of the Czech Republic today?
“[Laughs] I think he would be very unhappy.
“And sometimes I think, God, it’s so good that you have taken him – that he doesn’t see it.”
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