The Playwright-President

On a July afternoon in 1998, I was standing with a crowd of tourists beneath the Astronomical Clock of the Old Town Hall in the Old Town Square of Prague. I was in Prague as a student, enrolled in a fiction-writing course of the Prague Summer Seminars — a program then sponsored by the University of New Orleans in conjunction with Charles University.

Crowds of tourists standing beneath the Astronomical Clock were nothing new to me — every hour, on the hour, they stood there, waiting for the clock to chime. But this crowd seemed larger than usual and I was curious.

I lucked out. A few minutes later, a motorcade of burgundy Mercedes sedans pulled up, dignitary flags flapping. Out of the first car hopped President Václav Havel, the playwright who was then running the country, on his way into the Old Town Hall. As quickly as he had arrived, he disappeared, and the crowd began to disperse.

The following weekend, my roommate and I bumped into my writing teacher, Arnošt Lustig, as we walked out of the Castle. A spry septuagenarian, he held out his arms in greeting as he climbed the steep steps. I grinned broadly at catching him off-duty. My friend asked Arnošt whether he was also sight-seeing, but he exclaimed, “I live here!” and he pointed at the Castle. He had told us so in class, but we didn’t quite believe him for he was quite a story-teller.

When I asked Arnošt for details the next day, as we drank our coffee and ate our palachinkas on our mid-class break, he told me how he had helped out Václav Havel years earlier when the Communists were after him. In return, Arnošt stayed at the Castle, as Havel’s guest, any time Arnošt was in Prague. What a beautiful friendship, I thought, and I never doubted Arnošt’s stories again.

The Astronomical Clock of Prague’s Old Town Hall

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