by Jill Benderly
PRAGUE — I’m in the waiting room of Czechoslovakia’s Royal Palace, a lavender Baroque edifice perched above the city on Castle Hill. Eda Kriseova dashes in to greet me, her red hair flying. The last time I stood on Castle Hill, three years ago, I felt I was in the palace of the Snow Queen. Prague was a city of too much and too little. Too much glorious architecture, so that my neck stiffened from staring up at gargoyles and friezes. Too little conversation in public—the human spirit was in the deep freeze.
The last time I met Eda, in New York in the spring of 1989, she was reading her stories to a gathering of women from PEN, the writers’ group. Six months later Czechoslovakia unfroze for the first time since Russian tanks flattened the Prague Spring of 1968. Suddenly, dissident playwright Vaclav Havel became president — an artist reluctantly called to public duty — and Eda Kriseova was drafted to his team of advisors.
Eda and I rush along the Castle’s corridors of power, which have been transformed by Havel’s Civic Forum movement into a government of gentle spirits. She stops to sympathize with two young foreign policy advisors, unhappily on their way to Moscow.
We arrive at Kriseova’s office. The president’s advisor-at large shares a tiny room with her secretary and a young volunteer named Dusan. On her desk are piles of messages and letters and a little candle in the shape of Lenin’s head. Both of her telephones are ringing off the hook. “No, Mr. Ambassador, I can’t speak at the PEN event,” she apologizes. “All our writers are busy in the government these days.”
I steal Eda away from the Velvet Revolution for an hour. We sip coffee in the vast lounge, still stuffed with the sumptuous furnishings of the previous regime. Her white embroidered Indian-cotton dress settles into the green velvet armchair; her flat-sandaled bare legs are planted on the oriental rug. She begins to tell her story.
“My life is always full of paradox. I was already a very successful journalist in 1968, a young star. Then suddenly I lost my name, my job, I fell down. My life was completely dark. I was forbidden to work for 20 years.
“During 1968 I wrote for Listy, which was later denounced as the main counterrevolutionary magazine. In 1969 we were closed and our names put on the list. I was desperate. I lost everything. I loved my job. Besides, it meant economic troubles, as I was the family’s main provider: My husband was a student and we already had one child. I went to help out in a mental asylum, where the patients told me their lives. Later, I wrote about them.
“I started writing fiction. Eight books in 20 years, four volumes of short stories. Four novels, plus two children’s books. For eight years, nothing was published. Writing was a sort of psychotherapy and obsession. After that, my work started circulating in the world. But here in Czechoslovakia, I was not a writer, but a housewife. The only people who knew my things were samizdat readers (readers of underground publications) and those who heard readings of my stories on Radio Free Europe. Later, some books published in Czech in London and Toronto were smuggled into the country.
“I’m not a political person. I prefer philosophy to politics. Politics make ideas short. They’re current for a short time, and then they die. I wasn’t so much involved in politics, but in such a climate everything is political, even your way of living.
“In the last couple of years I got more involved in activism. I became friendly with Havel. We knew each other before, but we became closer after 1983 when he was released from prison.
“I was at the demonstrations with my daughters, who are 18 and 22.1 don’t like demonstrations, but it was better for me as a mother to be with them than to wait at home and worry. In the summer of 1989,1 told Havel that I felt something would happen in late October. I finished a story I was writing on November 17.1 was in a great hurry to finish because I knew something would soon happen. My kids went to a rally. I told them I didn’t need to accompany them because the protest was a legal one. But at five p.m. I got nervous. I had thrown my coat and boots over my jeans. I was running in the cold. When I saw a wall of red-bereted police, I knew.
“I called Havel and said I was at his disposal. He said, come in a quarter of an hour. I came in half-an-hour and never left.
“First, I said I’d work on the language of his documents, to repair the damage of the totalitarian mass media. After the press was freed in the second week of the revolution, I wrote the first biography of Havel for the newspapers. I will write his biography, a book, at the end of this year.
“I was in a closed circle around Havel. I told him, ‘I will follow you until you are elected president, and then I will go home.’ He replied, ‘No, you cannot write some stupid short story, you have to serve the nation.’ (And that means him.) We in his circle of advisors have to act quite independently. We have very close contact. I see him here in the Castle to ask him about new problems, but, in fact, basically we know his attitudes and we share the same way of seeing the universe. We were both students of the philosopher Jan Patocka [the first spokesman of the opposition movement, Charter 77, who died of a heart attack in March 1977 after 11 hours of interrogation by State Security for meeting with the Dutch foreign minister].
“My job here is to react to things. I have no long-range project. The revolution didn’t stop. It’s a marathon, not a short run. And we were already exhausted when we began.
“In the Castle, I’m using everything I’ve learned from my life. (Maybe it’s the end of my life then?) I have been practicing yoga for 15 years. There’s my fatalistic philosophy and intuition and sensitivity as a writer. Since January, I just give everyone my ear and they tell me their whole life. Mostly they just want someone who would listen to them. The three of us in my office answer heaps of letters. “We weren’t paid for our first six months of work. I borrowed 7000 crowns ($300) from Havel. He was the only paid employee here. I didn’t have enough money to buy a beer.
“We survived the first six months, which was dangerous even if we didn’t know it was. We’re romantic and idealistic. The fresh air will come into the world’s politics by people who are brave and a bit naive and see things differently. This is not fun, to inherit this damaged republic.
“The majority in this country love Havel, but they don’t love us with our long hair and beards. Some say ‘Havel has strange people around him.’ Some press call us ‘irresponsible artists.’
“In the president’s office, there are only two women advisors, Vera Caslavska and me. The public always speculates about which of us is Havel’s lover. In a totalitarian system, there were no rumors. It’s all right to be the only women. Havel always wants more women around, so he has put two very nice girls [sic] on the security force.
“All of us, the advisors, have a profession that we love. We all feel that we have to give up our ambitions now. One painter, who’s Havel’s appointment’s secretary, says he doesn’t sleep at night but instead goes to his studio. We have an advantage: We are free completely. We are not dependent. If Havel were to send us home, we wouldn’t mind. This is a part of life, like a family. We quarrel; we make up; we know we have to be together like sisters and brothers.
“My life has nothing in the middle, only heights and depths. It’s a pendulum. I wonder what will come next. I very much miss writing and being alone. Now I could actually be earning some money for writing!
“One of my books will be published here this year. I’m forbidden by my agent to publish more than two a year. The third is too much; the fourth is suicide, he says. “I have no time to write now, so I will have a reserve. It’s no good to publish all at once, even if I’m popular. Like in love, you can’t be at their disposal. I’ve waited for 20 years, so I can wait now.
“How is it for women in Czechoslovakia? For women here, life is complicated by the 1950s ideology of emancipation. We were told by the Communists that we’re completely free and not dependent on men. Quickly we found out it was a lie. We work two full-time jobs.
“Many ladies in the ’50s were involved in politics and put their kids in creches or gave them to grandmothers. Years later they found that they didn’t enjoy their children. Then it was too late. I put my two daughters into nursery school after they were three years old because they wanted to play with somebody and it was nice for them.
“People in this country are materialistic and not spiritual. They work two jobs to buy something completely stupid. If only they can renovate their sense of life and find their own interests instead of being envious of their neighbors. But we must cultivate this spiritual and moral life.”
When I return to Castle Hill the following night, I feel the stirrings of that moral renewal. I was hoping to watch a multimedia show about Czechoslovak history and the revolution, a spectacular of sound and light projected on the Palace and Cathedral walls. But the Castle courtyard filled up hours before the show. There’s no way I can enter, the guards apologize. When the crowds see my press card, they plead with the guards to admit me, “so she can tell America for us.” To my blushing amazement, one guard takes me by the arm and escorts me in, saying “It’s a democracy, you know. The people decide.” ‘
Jill Benderly is a freelance writer who has traveled throughout Eastern Europe and has written numerous articles about the political changes she witnessed there.