Life in a Police State Is Pretty Funny if You Don't Have to Live There

BEN BARBER

February 12, 1991|By BEN BARBER

WASHINGTON — Recently I attended the opening night of ''Largo Desolato,'' a play by Vaclav Havel, the dissident who became president of Czechoslovakia. The play mixed three influences: the absurd theater of Samuel Beckett, the inhuman power of the state, a la Franz Kafka, and the cajoling pressure of modern communism.

The Americans in the audience laughed heartily at the quasi-comical repetition of scarcely barbed threats by the police and the ludicrous repetition of paranoid or hectoring comments by the lead character's friends. The Czechs in the audience did not laugh. Nor did I.

In 1980 I spent several weeks in Czechoslovakia with my father, who was born near Brno and was doing research on our family history. I meanwhile collected notes for several articles I eventually published in the Atlantic and elsewhere, describing the state of mind that Mr. Havel dissects so chillingly in his play.

So frightened of the ''system'' were the Czechs at the time that I wrote under a pseudonym, convinced that otherwise the state security apparatus could identify the hotel I had stayed in and collect records of whom I had telephoned and visited. By law all Czechoslovaks who met with foreigners were required to report to the police the following day and list the subjects they had discussed. The law was rarely enforced but inspired fear.

If a neighbor, colleague or police informer reported your contacts to the authorities, it was entered in records at the block committee, office or interior ministry. One's children could be yanked from high school and barred from ever attending university; career prospects ended; apartments for married children were denied, and no visas for foreign travel would be granted.

Even though I changed all the names, professions and towns of the people cited in my articles to protect their identities -- and I carried at all times my notes on my person -- the fear felt by Czechoslovaks made me worry for them. That is why Mr. Havel's ''absurd'' dialogue seemed amusing only to those unfamiliar with the life millions of Czechoslovaks and other East Europeans have known for 40 years.

Perhaps when the terror of living inside such a system is stripped away, there is much that is laughable. Imagine that millions of Czechs had to sign a petition condemning the Charter 77 human-rights document even though they had never been allowed to read it! It's laughable -- until one thinks of the humiliation of such an act and the consequences of resisting it: dooming one's parents and children to living cooped up together with you in a tiny flat for decades, working at low-level jobs and ending hopes for education and travel.

Those brought up under repressive regimes that threatened and often consumed their homes and families have a deeper sense of terror, reaching into the bones and sinew of the physical body, than do most Americans today. No one would hope for his children to know the sufferings of the past. But lack of that knowledge leaves Mr. Havel's message unintelligible to most American audiences.

I remember pulling out a New York Times at an outdoor cafe in Prague with my father and some relatives and friends. The Czechs at the table turned gray and nervously glanced at the other tables to see who might be watching. One man started sweating and ran his finger around his collar. When I put the newspaper away, the bubble of tension evaporated. Simply being seen at a table with a forbidden foreign newspaper was terrifying.

I remember having a beer and some knedlickly (dumplings) and schnitzel with my father outside Brno, a decade before the rebirth of democracy and freedom in Middle Europe. Czechoslovaks always share occupied tables in restaurants. Our neighbor wore several pins on his hat; to make conversation, I asked what they stood for. My father kicked me under the table. Our fellow diner did not reply to my question. Later my father explained that ''the pins were from the munitions plant -- one doesn't mention that here.''

My father was outside Czechoslovakia when Hitler seized the country. He joined the Free Czech Army which formed in France and was evacuated to Britain, fighting with the Allied armies until the liberation of Czechoslovakia. When it became Communist in 1948 he settled in Canada but returned often enough to learn the ground rules. I wish, as do many of my generation descended from Eastern Europeans, that my father had lived a few more years to see the liberation of his native country.

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