As Pru and I wandered Wenceslas Square, a man from Pilsen recognized our accents as American and thanked us, our country, our army, thank you thank you for several minutes, for driving the Nazis from his city fifty years before. My sister was sixteen and I twenty. It was a shock for us, having grown up embarrassed over our country's imperialist errors, to be the symbolic recipients of national thanks, and I think the man was as much overwhelmed by the fact that he could have this conversation with us, this conversation that would have been impossible a year before, as by his gratitude. Fifty years is a long time to be unable to say what's on your mind.
A jug band, complete with washboard, on the Charles Bridge played "Oh Susannah" with tremendous gusto, singing in Czech. A decade later, Pru went back for a visit and called me on her cell phone so I could hear them--same instruments, same song, same unlikely language. "They're still here! Don't these guys ever take a break?" Now I want to write a story in which they indeed didn't. Prague had that magical feeling some cities have--like the one Venice has, only less false and more tragic. It felt like a city whose magic was just waking back up.
Vaclav Havel was the president I wished I could have. How could I resist his story? Dissident playwright founds human rights group, spends decades in and out of jail, leads peaceful revolution, runs country with surprising presidential competence. And if only our national legislature had anybody as cool in it as the guys who spent their dissident years playing in the band The Plastic People of the Universe.
My beta readers for Spires of Beltresa will not be at all surprised that I owe the Czechs a major creative debt. The individual Czechs in question would probably be slightly annoyed--they're always stuck being symbols of dissident victory, but nobody remembers the music, the plays, the art they risked prison to make. And here I am, one more person who's never seen a Havel play, never heard a Plastic People album, mouthing off about how much I admire them.
But if I can't say so right after reading Havel's obituary, when can I say it? Thank you, Mr. Havel. You've been an antidote to political despair for over twenty years. You were up against worse than most of us here have ever had to face, you persevered, you won, and you did it all while living a real, imperfect life full of messy creativity. You're the light in the Laterna Magika.