Havel's Castle

October 5: Vaclav Havel was born on this day in 1936 in Prague. In To the Castle and Back, his 2007 memoir-meditation on his decades in politics, Havel issues this caution to the next generation of politicians, or its electorate:

The European Union occasionally still suffers from the old European disease, which is the tendency to make compromises with evil, to close one's eyes to dictatorship, to practice a politics of appeasement or even of accommodation…. Accommodating evil has, so far, never forced evil to retreat, or to become more humane; on the contrary, it has always made life easier for it. In the end, when confrontation came, the price that everyone had to pay was infinitely higher than the cost of a firm stance.

This has been one of the primary themes in Havel's literary work. The Memorandum, his 1965 black comedy on the horrors of bureaucratic red tape, portrays communist Czechoslovakia as a land of Orwellian double-speak and Hellerian Catch-22s, with Head Office deep inside Kafka's Castle. In mortal fear of displeasing the higher-ups, the Managing Director must endorse "Ptydepe," the new official language of all memos and directives. An engineering marvel, Ptydepe is, in theory, logical and scientific; in practice, it is inscrutable and long, with some words over 300 letters. And, should any head-scratching rubber-stamper want one, a translation from Ptydepe is nigh impossible, as it requires an authorization from someone who needs an authorization from someone who, by definition, can't give it. The too-familiar bottom line: the only way to find out what Head Office wants is to know it already. But some aspects of the new language make perfect sense, especially to a shoulder-shrugging clerk named Thumb, here at Ptydepe training class:

LEAR [the instructor]: …You see, the vocabulary of Ptydepe is built according to an entirely logical principle: the more common the meaning the shorter the word. Thus, for example, the most commonly used term so far known—that is the term "whatever"—is rendered in Ptydepe by the word "gh." As you can see, it is a word consisting of only two letters. There exists, however, an even shorter word—that is "f"—but this word does not yet carry any meaning. I wonder if any of you can tell me why. Well?


(Only THUMB raises his hand.)


LEAR: Well, Mr. Thumb?


THUMB (gets up): It's being held in reserve in case science should discover a term even more commonly used than the term "whatever."


LEAR: Correct, Mr. Thumb. You get an A.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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