Asking the right questions: the voice of a Czech dissident

V'aclav Havel: Or Living in Truth, edited by Jan Vladislav. London and Boston: Faber & Faber. 315 pp. $22.50. Can communism reform itself? Just as Westerners are getting excited about the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, this timely book has appeared to administer a healthy dose of skepticism.

``V'aclav Havel: Or Living in Truth'' consists of six essays by Czechoslovakia's best-known dissident, along with 16 short tributes to him by friends such as playwright Arthur Miller and novelist Heinrich B"oll.

The essays are not ordinary political analyses. They are poetic, philosophical meditations. Although Havel was a founding member of the Charter 77 human rights group, he considers himself first a playwright. Contemporary events interest him little. Imagine this: Nowhere in his essays does he write about any of the present leaders of Czechoslovakia.

Nor does Havel describe his personal tribulations as a dissident. Since the 1968 Soviet invasion, he has endured constant harassment by the secret police and spent more than four years in jail. Although theaters in major Western cities - New York, London, Paris, Vienna - have staged his plays, his writings, including this book, are banned in his homeland.

Instead, Havel's focus is the seemingly ordinary. In an essay called ``Thriller,'' he spends six pages discussing one day's news, using singer Michael Jackson's rock video as a metaphor for alienation in modern, technological society. He spends more pages dissecting the suppression of a Czech rock group named the Plastic People - ``unknown young people who wanted no more than to be able to live within the truth, to play the music they enjoyed.''

Behind this eclectic choice of topics lies a powerful logic. Havel is interested in how power is wielded, and for Westerners, his conclusions are startling. Communist governments don't beat their populations into submission through brute force, he says. They stymie them through an intricate web of lies. When military occupation is described as ``fraternal assistance,'' when shelves full of books are published in the name of progress only to rewrite history, ``the main pillar of the system is living a lie.''

Some of the most moving passages in the book concern just how lies have destroyed individuals in his country.

``In 1974 when I was employed in a brewery, my immediate superior was a certain S, a person well versed in the art of making beer,'' Havel writes. ``He was proud of his profession and he wanted our brewery to brew good beer. He spent almost all his time at work, continually thinking up improvements and he frequently made the rest of us feel uncomfortable because he assumed that we loved brewing as much as he did.''

Unfortunately, ``the brewery itself was managed by people who understood their work less.'' They felt threatened by S and his suggestions. S was described as a ``political saboteur,'' and was ``thrown out of the brewery and shifted to another one where he was given a job requiring no skill.''

Real change in communist countries, Havel says, can only come when the S's of the East bloc are not frustrated from properly doing their jobs, no matter how menial. Will Mr. Gorbachev let them?

Gorbachev realizes that economic improvement cannot be accomplished without political improvement. Through glasnost, he proposes new candor in the press, greater tolerance of public debate, and even multi-candidate elections.

Havel does not doubt Gorbachev's reforming zeal. Although most of these essays were written before the new reform drive in Moscow, he told this correspondent in a recent interview in Prague that he hoped the Soviet leader can ``give us some open space.''

Still, he remained skeptical. What the Soviet leader is proposing, he explained, is contradictory. True pluralism and openness would let the S's succeed - and threaten East-bloc leaders' own power base. It is no accident that Czechoslovakia's aging leaders seem reluctant to follow Gorbachev's proposals despite the verbal support they give them.

What then can be done? Although Havel says that more of his fellow citizens must copy S and stand up for what they believe true, he gives no convincing answer of how to make them do so. He offers no plan of action, no political program.

The true value of his book is in posing the right questions. When Havel is asked, as he has time and time again, about the strength of Charter 77 opposition, or about the debate on nuclear missiles on either side of the Iron Curtain, he replies that these questions are not relevant. What should be asked is how communism affects people's ordinary lives, how it forces them to retreat into living a lie.

That is a pertinent lesson, both for Gorbachev as he moves ahead with his reforms, and for Westerners as they try to understand what he is up against.

Monitor correspondent William Echikson, based in Paris, writes frequently about Eastern Europe.

Excerpt from `The Power of the Powerless' If `dissidents' have any kind of authority at all and if they have not been exterminated long ago like exotic insects that have appeared where they have no business being, then this is not because government holds this exclusive group and their exclusive ideas in such awe, but because it is perfectly aware of the potential political power of `living within the truth' rooted in the hidden sphere, and well aware too of the kind of world `dissent' grows out of and the world it addresses: the everyday human world, and the world of daily tension between the aims of life and the aims of the system. -V'aclav Havel

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