A Beer with Hrabal


That 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.

He 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.

He 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 body.

This 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.

When 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.

One 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.

Back 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.


How 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.

On 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.

Soon, 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.

The crowd of curious onlookers was growing. They were waiting enthusiastically for their president.

About 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 answered dismissively.

Soon 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.

Still 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?”

The guard answered indecisively, “Well, if it's okay with our president, why not? What brand did you bring?”

“Radegast, the best beer in Moravia.”

“Good. Our 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.

At 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.

The 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 stopped him.

Mark 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.”

The president thanked him and put the bag in the back seat. The cars were set in motion toward the Hradčany.

On 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.

All 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.

When 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.

After 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."

From then on, Marek visited Havel's books rather than his doors.



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