Vaclav Havel, the writer and dissident whose eloquent dissections of Communist rule helped to destroy it in revolutions that brought down the Berlin Wall and swept Havel himself into power, died on Sunday. He was 75.
When I read this in the New York Times this morning, the sense of loss I felt was beyond what one might expect upon the death of an important and admirable man. It seemed to me as though I had lost a friend, and I had to remind myself that I’d never met or corresponded with Mr. Havel, that we had no friends or acquaintances in common, and that I’d never even read his work or paid more than cursory attention to his political activities.
So why this sense of loss?
Then it came to me. In 1998, after a 28-year hiatus, I published an eighth book about Evan Tanner, called Tanner on Ice. It begins with an explanation of Tanner’s long absence; having run afoul of agents of the Swedish government, he’d been drugged and consigned to a freezer in the sub-basement of a house in Union City, New Jersey. Now, thawed out, he finds himself thrust into an incomprehensibly altered world.
But let me quote a bit from my favorite author:
“So much to find out! So much to catch up on!
“A lot of it was exciting. It had been evident even back in the early Seventies that Europe was in the process of becoming one nation, and that process had continued, but so had its opposite. Yugoslavia was a prime example, having during those same years become five nations, but it was by no means an isolated example. The bad old USSR had become more than a dozen nations, and even Czechoslovakia had somehow found it incumbent upon itself to bifurcate into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Four short years before my personal Ice Age began, Russian tanks had rolled through the streets of Prague. Now Vaclav Havel, whom I’d met once in a garret in Montparnasse, was president of the country. I remembered him as a chain-smoking young playwright, a gentle idealistic dreamer, and now the son of a gun was a head of state.”
Well, that explained it. He wasn’t a friend of mine. He was a friend of Tanner’s. A friend, that is to say, of a figment of my imagination.
I read somewhere that Isabel Allende has come to realize she can no longer trust her memory, that the fabrications of her fiction have become as real to her as her actual experiences, and she finds herself unable to distinguish between them. I don’t think that has happened to me yet, but I’m beginning to see how it could.
Because, although I’m in no danger of believing I met Mr. Havel in Paris, the quasi-recollection of that meeting is surprisingly real to me. The low sloping ceiling, the buzz of conversation, the windows shuttered against the chill night air, the smell of his Gauloises cigarettes…
There are meetings with other individuals, meetings which actually took place, that I don’t recall anywhere near as vividly.
Ah well. Requiescat in pace, Vaclav Havel. The world’s loss is great. I’ll miss your presence in it.
And so, in a rather more personal way, will Evan Tanner.