Thursday

4th Mar 2021

Column

Entrenched in the state villa

The story starts in the orchard of a magnificent villa, in an unnamed country somewhere in Europe.

Vilem Rieger, a man in his 60s who was the country's chancellor until very recently, is interviewed by two journalists.

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  • 'Politicians come and go. Literature remains,' the 73-year-old Vaclav Havel said at the US premiere of Leaving, in Philadelphia in 2010. These words should give us some courage between now and 20 January

While they talk, a servant puts lemonade on the table and some glasses of beer, in which he sprinkles cinnamon powder. An office clerk, meanwhile, is sorting out which things belong to the state and which to Rieger himself. He walks past with a phone in each hand.

Rieger sees him and says: "I hope those phones are not government property?"

"Unfortunately, Vilem, they are," the clerk replies.

Rieger continues his interview - a farewell interview, of course. He seizes the opportunity to sugar-coat his 'legacy'.

His spokesman, Rieger's mother and his girlfriend Irina, 20 years his junior, are also present. "At the very core of my political thinking there was always the individual human being," Rieger declares. "A free, happy citizen, constantly learning new skills and steeped in family values..."

Irina interrupts him, saying to one of the journalists: "Dick, don't you love the way he can put things in a nutshell? I've always admired that."

In the end the journalist asks: "Does the loss of parliamentary immunity bother you?"

Rieger responds: "Why should it bother me?"

At which the spokesman quickly gets up and says they must wrap up the conversation. But the journalist quickly puts in one last question: "Aren't you worried, Mr former chancellor, that you'll be forced to move out of here? This villa, after all, is government property."

Rieger, Irena, his spokesman, his mother and his girlfriend all look at each other in surprise. There a short silence. It is true: they don't want to move out. The whole Rieger clan has lived in this beautiful residence for years. They don't know anything else anymore.

Forcing us out, Rieger then says, "They wouldn't dare."

First as tragedy, then as farce

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

But maybe it is the other way around, after all. First there was Vaclav Havel's hilarious play Leaving, written in 2007, about chancellor Rieger and his coterie and their refusal to accept the transfer of power.

And now there is Donald Trump, barricaded in the White House. Will he go voluntarily, by 20 January? Or does farce come first in this case, followed by tragedy?

It is clear that Havel, the dissident playwright who was president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and Czech president from 1993 to 2003, wrote this play as a farce.

It's a mild farce, compared to the drama that is now taking place in Washington.

Rieger at least admits he has lost power, although his rival and successor has not yet been sworn in. He just entrenches himself in his villa. In the end nobody cares about him anymore. Everything slips through his fingers. The faithful, including his sweetheart Irina, walk away one by one.

True democrats stand out not just by their words, but by their ability to relinquish power. Havel himself set the right example.

Unlike the fictional character, Rieger, he was very ambivalent about his presidency. Afterwards he was overjoyed to have his old life back. He hated life in Prague Castle. Sure, as president, he enjoyed the part where he could meet world leaders and interesting characters.

But for the rest he thought he got nothing done - president or not.

In his wonderful autobiography, To The Castle And Back, he mentions his endless, personal interferences with kitchen staff to improve the food at state banquets.

But no matter how hard he tried, the cooks in the castle continued to serve world leaders the same dried-out dumplings swimming in a tasteless, instant sauce. "In a five-star cafe you get better service," Havel quips.

When his lighter was empty and he needed a refill, it could take days before the Castle 'machinery' managed to put it on his desk.

In the autobiography his inability to get staff even to sweep the stairs inspires him to touching and funny musings on power or the lack of it. Leaving the castle "I felt a huge weight falling from my shoulders".

The only thing ex-chancellor Rieger manages to keep in Leaving is an ugly portrait of himself. There is a stamp of the chancellery on the back of the painting, partly covered with a large stain.

"Good news Vilem," says the clerk (the same guy from the telephones), "You can keep this. The stamp on the back is so smudged that if it comes down to it, we can always say we simply didn't notice it."

But Rieger doesn't want the painting. He thinks it's "a fourth-rate finger painting. A shoddy piece of work". In the end, his old mother, one of the few who still believes in him, wants to hang it in her bedroom.

"Politicians come and go. Literature remains," the 73-year-old playwright said at the US premiere of Leaving, in Philadelphia in 2010. These words should give us some courage between now and 20 January.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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