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Friday, May 18, 2007

Thing 36: Learn Something at the Library of Congress

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the Library of Congress is the most under used resource in the District, at least for me. I know that lots of people use it for policy making, legislating and academic study, but considering that it I work one block from the thing and that it houses every book ever printed, I never take advantage of it as a resource.

Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

So with that in mind, yesterday I went to attend a lunch time book talk of To The Castle and Back, the newest book and memoir by former Czech President Vaclav Havel.

After disclosing my obsession with embassies, it will likely come as no surprise that I am a nut for Czech history and that I have a deep love and appreciation for, admiration of and blind devotion to Havel. I won't get into the extent of my love, but let's just say that one of my favorite anecdotes from my life is when I went to Prague and basically stalked him at the castle, making it into his anteroom and scoring two autographed pictures of him.

So obviously, a talk given about his memoir by the translator caught my eye.

What I didn't realize until I got there was that the translator, Paul Wilson, was one original members of The Plastic People of the Universe, a rock band that contributed to the dissident movement in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia. He was ultimately put on trial by the Soviets and expelled from Prague to his native Canada in 1977, but maintained contact with the underground dissident movement, including with Havel.

At the Library of Congress, Wilson was introduced by the Czech Ambassador, who also played a video greeting recorded by Havel welcoming us to the Library of Congress, and making some self effacing jokes about his book and his life's work.

I was pretty much in a giant candy store.

After the Czech Ambassador spoke eloquently about Havel's genius, and then Havel himself, wearing a sweater and jeans and laboring to breathe because of that whole smoking constantly thing he does, Paul Wilson took a seat and was interviewed about translating this book, his relationship with Vaclav and his role in the Czech dissident movement. It was really fascinating, learning about how he arrived in Czechoslovakia, became involved with the Plastic People and came to symbolize freedom of expression in an authoritarian environment (answer: almost entirely by accident). How difficult it is translating Vaclav Havel's work because he writes with such complexity and how he tries to capture the symbolism and mood of the piece for an English speaking readership. How he has a beer with Havel every time he goes back to the Czech Republic, of which I am insanely jealous.

Paul Wilson: translator, aging rock musician, front man for a band that changed the world.

The hour ended with a clips from an upcoming documentary that some friends of Wilson will be releasing later this year. They filmed President Havel during 160 days over the course of several years of his presidency and after he left office. Again, his self effacing humor and charm are so endearing during these moments of candor they captured. He was the first president of a country transitioning out of Communism and into a free market democracy. There was no precedent or protocol for him to follow. He cracks jokes about having to meet to discuss the menu before a visit from Jacques Chirac and how he is terrified of offending the visiting Saudi royal family. He is just an ordinary guy, a gifted playwright with challenging ideas, who stepped into a powerful position as best he knew how. And I really, really love him.

Hopefully, this will inspire some of you to check out (Czech out, ha!) the schedule of upcoming events at the Library of Congress. They have lectures, book talks, poetry readings and concerts going on all the time and it is a huge resource that we are lucky to have available to us as DC residents.

Oh, and then I saw Theresa Heinz Kerry chatting on Pennsylvania Avenue as I walked back to my office.