cold rainy evening, I didn’t want to talk with anyone on
the phone. I began to read a letter from my good friend
Marek, who lived in Moravia. It was a warm, well
thought-out letter. His vulnerability came out in it, as
he was getting ready for surgery on his shoulder, and he
thought he might not be able to handle the pain.
expressed regret for breaking his lifelong resolution to
always write me back within a year and a day. In long sentences,
he apologized for not mailing his letter from the previous
year. He had written it on a computer and copied it to a
disk. But before he managed to print it out, the disk had
gotten mixed up with three hundred others. Poor Marek!
He took them out, one by one, and scrutinized the disks
that held books by Bohumil Hrabal, Václav Havel, George
Orwell, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many others. Before
the Velvet Revolution, Marek was a member of a group that
retyped underground books. Each member retyped different
chapters, so that way the police would never get the whole
thing. When Marek searched through all the disks, hoping
to find his letter for me, he decided that he must have
erased it. Since he had a great memory, he was able to rewrite
his previous letter almost word for word.
wasn’t a writer by profession, but he had a lot to write
about. His thoughts outran his fingers on the keyboard,
as ideas blended with potato pancakes and beer inside his
mixture gave him the courage to tell me that my first book
had driven him crazy. Originally, he thought that he'd be
able to devour it in one night, but that didn't happen. He
had to confess that when he first read Václav Havel, it
had also been harder reading than he had expected. Many
times he had set the book aside, frustrated.
a birthday wish to "Ferdinand Vanĕk" appeared
in the communist newspaper Rudé Právo, Marek understood
very well. He laughed so hard that he had to hold his stomach. Those
who hadn’t listened to Radio Free Europe or read Havel’s work wouldn't know that Ferdinand Vanĕk
was Havel himself.
evening, when Marek was secretly listening to Radio Free
Europe, he heard that people could go to meet Václav Havel,
and that he welcomed everyone. Marek decided to visit him. Maybe
when they met personally, Havel could explain to him what he couldn't get
from his books.
In the space of a year and a half, Marek went
to Prague four times, bringing the best beer in Moravia with him. Each
time, there was a different stranger, probably from the
secret police, sitting on a chair down the hall from Havel's
apartment. Unfortunately for Marek,
Havel was never at home.
Marek had to leave the beer with Havel's wife, Olga.
out on the street, Marek would always see a trailer for
construction workers. It was a good hiding place for the
secret police to watch the house. Who knows how many pictures
they took of Marek going upstairs? Back home in Moravia,
he couldn't say anything about his visits because his mom
kept frightening him: “They will lock you up,” she'd say.
quickly things changed in the next few years. Just before
the Berlin Wall fell, Marek watched many East Germans emigrate
to Prague. The citizens put them up for the night because
the space around the West German embassy was packed. He
thought it was fantastic.
October 5, 1989, when the Laureate for the Peace Prize was
announced at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Marek had really
hoped that it would be Havel. That would habe been such
a special gift for Havel's birthday. Instead, the chairman
of the Nobel Committee, Egil Aarvik, pronounced the name
of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. Marek thought
it was nice when Havel had congratulated The Dalai Lama
over the radio and later invited him to Prague.
peaceful Czechoslovakia got its turn. The Velvet Revolution
in 1989 saw Havel elected President of Czechoslovakia. Marek
was so proud. He wanted to show his family the place where
he came to see his president. The
whole family traveled to Prague. As they walked toward the
president's apartment building at Rašínovo nábřeží
78 on the morning of August 21, 1990, they saw a large dark
BMW with tinted windows. Inside sat a man the size of a
mountain, reading a newspaper. Marek tapped on the window
and asked when the president would walk out of the house. The
man shrugged his shoulders indifferently. Marek quickly
ran back to his car where he had four beers. He took out
two, because four suddenly seemed like too many to smuggle
in, put them into a plastic bag, and hurried back to make
sure he wouldn't miss anything.
crowd of curious onlookers was growing. They were waiting
enthusiastically for their president.
forty minutes later, the entrance started swarming with
the president's security guards. There were large and small
men with wires on their sleeves and earphones in their ears,
searching the corners and crannies of the house. Marek asked
one of them, “How many of you are there?”
“More than twenty, fewer than fifty,” the man
Marek realized that it was the same guard who, in February,
had literally pushed him from the Jalta Hotel in Prague
when he had wanted to shake hands with the Dalai Lama. Still,
he was able to sneak around to the Dalai Lama's car, taking
a different route, and shake hands with him. The Dalai Lama
had even opened his car door. Perhaps Marek had succeeded
then because in that crowd he had looked -- with his large
shoulders and leather jacket -- like the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard.
waiting on the street, Marek asked the large guard next
to the car, “When will the president come out? Do you think
he would let me give him two beers?”
guard answered indecisively, “Well, if it's okay with our
president, why not? What brand did you bring?”
“Radegast, the best beer in Moravia.”
president likes that brand.”
Marek asked again, “Will the president personally
drink it, or will his people throw it away?”
“I’m not sure,” answered the guard.
that moment, the president's wife, Olga, stepped out with
her dog, Dula. She waited, smiling at the people. Marek
nodded his head slightly, as if he were saying hello to
a well-known acquaintance. She responded with the same gesture. He
believed that she remembered him from his previous visits
with the beer. He would have been really surprised if she
had not. She and Dula got into another car, parked behind
the BMW, and drove off.
president soon came out. He paused on the doorstep, smiling
at the crowd of about fifty admirers, waiting for their
applause to die down. Then he approached the car, where
one of his bodyguards opened the door for him. He sat next
to the chauffer, took out a cigarette, lit it, and rolled
down the window. That was when Marek leaped toward the BMW. The
security guard went to grab his hand, but the president
handed the bag over to him with the words he had prepared,
“My dear president, I brought you the best beer in Moravia
for you. We all like you very much and wish you much success.”
president thanked him and put the bag in the back seat. The
cars were set in motion toward the Hradčany.
October 16, 1994, Marek was waiting for me at the airport
in Prague. The first thing he wanted to show me was the
house in Rašínovo nábřeží where his president lived. Sadly,
the entrance was locked. Marek thought that we might have
better luck at the president's newly renovated house in
Dĕlostřelecká Street in Střešovice district. But
when we got there, the door of that beautiful residence
was locked, too.
of a sudden a man appeared. After some pleasant banter,
we learned that he was an architect. He told us that in
May of 1993, the president had moved from a house on Rašínovo
nábřeží to the Little House on the Castle grounds.
the architect heard that I had traveled all the way from
America to see where the president lived, he opened the
door to give us a short tour. We were pleased. How many
people could say that they had been in the president's house,
even before it was finished? I was most impressed with the
beautiful library, even though there wasn't yet a single
book in it.
our tour, I asked Marek if he was going to bring beer here,
too. He smiled and answered confidently, "I think that
my days of knocking on the president's door are over."
then on, Marek visited Havel's books rather than his doors.