In the last week of May 1982, six days before my release from prison, Václav Benda and I were moved from the bookbinding workshop to Bloc One, where Václav Havel was being kept.1 Both Havel and I were on the morning shift, the weather was fine and the courtyard fairly open, so I was able to spend my remaining afternoons strolling with him in the most remote of the prison areas, the wryly named Bory ‘Versailles’ (here, in spite of the prison workshops and rubbish heaps, a few traces of an ancient garden remained). Over the long months we had exchanged no more than a few words: words snatched at odd moments – at mealtimes or the occasional sports event, at the gatherings to celebrate the Victorious February or the October Revolution, at a rare concert of recordings of works by Bach, or at the prison entrance, when the members of the laundry staff (which included Havel) returned to their cells.

For me, at least, things were coming full circle – indeed, with my imminent release there was something of the euphoria we had felt in Heřmanice, in January 1980, when after seven months of isolation in the interrogation cells we were suddenly allowed to speak to each other, to prepare our snacks together and sit next to each other while watching the evening news. Strangely, of the two of us, Havel was in the better mood. As long as the others remained behind, my own freedom meant little to me and my departure seemed incomplete. Havel, however, viewed my release as the first of many and as a cause for optimism. A tireless systematizer (his effects were folded in his cubbyhole with the precision you would expect of a newly graduated military officer), he kept giving me instructions, asking me to repeat everything over and over, point by point, and laughing with me as we plotted my return to the outside world.

His letters, especially, were important to him. Aware as he was of the campaign being waged abroad in connection with our trial and imprisonment, he was afraid that he might enter the public consciousness as a ‘professional revolutionary’ or ‘dissident’ – not, as he wished, as a writer, a seeker after truth, but as a kind of cultural cruise missile, deployed by one superpower against another. He was against bullshit, regardless of where it might come from. If he was primarily against home-grown bullshit, it was simply because he lived in Czechoslovakia and it was his duty to start at home. ‘If I lived elsewhere,’ he said, ‘I would doubtless be trying to prevent the construction of a new runway at Frankfurt Airport, collecting signatures against the installation of Pershing and cruise missiles and voting for the Green Party.’

Finished With Engines