Good Reads: Remembrances of Vaclav Havel, Christopher Hitchens, and Kim Jong-il (video)

The passing of two great writers, Havel and Hitchens, may not cause currencies to fluctuate or armies to go on standby as Kim Jong-il's death has today. But the influence of their words will live on.

David W. Cerny/Reuters
A woman holds flowers as she arrives to pay her respects to late former Czech President Vaclav Havel in Prague Crossroads Center in Prague December 19. Havel, a dissident playwright who was jailed by Communists and then went on to lead the bloodless "Velvet Revolution" and become Czech president, died on Sunday.

One of the benefits of being a rather famous writer is that when you do “go gentle in that good night,” all your friends, who are also rather famous writers, write stories about you. The stories may be true or false, funny or moving, but they will be well-written.

The magazines this week are full of tributes and remembrances of two writers who passed on in the past few days, and who will be missed: Vaclav Havel, the playwright-turned-president of the Czech Republic, and Christopher Hitchens, the liberal Brit who didn’t mind offending liberal Americans, repeatedly.

Their passing may not cause currencies to fluctuate or neighboring armies to be put on standby, as North Korean President Kim Jong-il’s death today has. But the melody of their words continues on long after their instruments go silent. 

It’s not hard to understand the appeal of a man like Vaclav Havel. He is the man who experienced true revenge against a totalitarian regime, using the most brutal weapon: his humor. He was a playwright, a novelist, and an activist by accident. He wrote bizarre stories about the everyday absurdities of a totalitarian regime that jailed him, and when that regime lost its outside funding and crumbled, he feasted with rock stars and poets, and, oddly, became president.

To his credit, Havel was always a better writer than he was a politician. But he steered his country well enough in its voyage from a Soviet satellite to an independent partner in a larger Europe.

In this week’s New Yorker, I love this observation from David Remnick:

Even surrounded by the pomp of his office, Havel retained to the end an impish smile, a constant acknowledgement that his power was both an immense responsibility and an equally immense cosmic joke. I came to the Castle, in 2003, to talk with him for a Profile just as he was preparing to leave power. He gave me as a gift a marvelous book of photographs portraying his life as an artist and politician. He signed it to my wife, who had covered the 1989 revolution in Prague with me, in lime-green marker and then drew a little heart, in red, next to his signature. I have a hard time imagining any other president goofing around like that.

Less powerful, perhaps, but equally complex is the writer Christopher Hitchens, a man who somehow survived on freelance writing, contribution to a number of magazines, including Vanity Fair, the Nation, Slate, the Atlantic, and the New York Times Book Review.

Foreign policy wonks will always remember Hitchens for his vigorous lobbying for war against Iraq, a cause he both regretted and remained unapologetic about.

“To say one had no regrets would be abnormally unreflective, I think,” Hitchens told the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman in 2010. But while he recognized the war's effect on the Iraqi population, including the deaths of an estimated 100,000 civilians, he said that the goal of removing Saddam Hussein from power was the only morally correct decision. “I finally found I couldn’t support any policy that involved the continuation of Saddam Hussein in power… So to that extent, I’m not apologetic.”

Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, wrote a remembrance of Hitchens that may be excruciating to ordinary people, but is the ultimate compliment to a true reporter.

There was no subject too big or too small for Christopher. Over the past two decades he traveled to just about every hot spot you can think of. He’d also subject himself to any manner of humiliation or discomfort in the name of his column. I once sent him out on a mission to break the most niggling laws still on the books in New York City. One such decree forbade riding a bicycle with your feet off the pedals. The photograph that ran with the column, of Christopher sailing a small bike through Central Park with his legs in the air, looked like something out of the Moscow Circus. 

Which brings us to the Dear Leader. We may never know whether Kim Jong-il rode a bike with his legs in the air. We may never know if he had a whimsical side, poking fun at himself as he pushed his navy into open battles with South Korea, urged his people to eat grass when rice became unavailable, or played nuclear brinksmanship with the West.

Someday soon, there will be a giant stone statue in Pyongyang marking the life of Kim Jong-il. But Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens will live on in their words. 

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