Vaclav Havel: a political tragedy in six acts, by John Keane (Bloomsbury, £12.99 in UK)

 

Plain man's President, is how the late president of the Czech Republic is generally portrayed; John Keane presents a rather more complex picture in this enormous study, which begins with the boy Havel's upbringing in the bosom of "an old and respectable family whose known roots stretched back into the late 18th century". In truth the first couple of hundred pages will tax the patience of a reader who wants the book to skip straight to the Velvet Revolution, but a massively detailed account of Czechoslovakia's totalitarian past is unquestionably of relevance, and those who stick with it will be rewarded - eventually - by a warm, rounded and often startling account of a man who loved cigarettes, alcohol and women as much as he valued words and wisdom. Havel was no angel, and there are those of us who - shamefully - will be as gripped by the details of his relationship with the long-suffering Olga and, following her death from cancer, his second marriage to a glamorous young actress as we are by the unfolding of Czechoslovakia's recent troubled past. The tone of the book is slightly odd: he favours an apocalyptic, declamatory style which often comes across as slightly camp, as in the chapter entitled "Temptation", which begins "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: these ancient words still rumble like thunder through our hills and valleys, not least because the gluttonous act of giving in to enticements, initially against our will, is made to feel morally questionable by the survival deep in our hearts of the belief that we are mere mortal sons and daughters of a fallen apple-eater." A hearty Amen, anybody?