AN EXCERPT FROM VACLAV HAVEL’S UNPUBLISHED ESSAY ENTITLED A DAY IN A PRISON CELL, ca. 1977-78
On the occasion of Vaclav Havel’s 79th birth anniversary (10/05/36)
This is a translation of three hand-written pages now on display at the Bohemian National Hall in Manhattan. They are a rough sketch for an essay Havel intended to write, describing the tedious and monotonous daily routine of his pre-trial detention, when he was arrested following the publication of the human rights manifesto, Charter 77, in 1977. The manuscript is on loan from the personal archive of David Dusek and was translated by Pavla Niklova and Paul Wilson.
The wake-up call came at six, announcing itself by a siren in the corridor. Even though, when a free man, I’ve never much liked getting up early, especially not that early, in prison the wake-up call never left me feeling as depressed as it did in the army, or during those times when I had to get up early to go to work. On the contrary: in prison one is delighted at the prospect of some kind, any kind, of activity. We would get out of bed immediately (after all, staying in bed would have cost us dearly) and began making our beds, tidying the cell, and performing our morning ablutions. In my case, these activities had a definite order to them. I performed them conscientiously, and they basically took up the entire first hour of the day, but it was a happy hour because it was filled with purposeful activity, which made the time pass quickly. At around seven they gave us breakfast. After breakfast we had time for a quiet smoke, I did some exercises, after which we got ready for the roll-call, which meant that we tidied our things in the closet, and did some dusting and other cleaning of that sort. The roll-call was at around eight and it involved of an official entering the cell, whom we had to welcome by standing at attention near the cell door and delivering a polite formal declaration: (“Mr. Commandant, sir. Cell number 379 ready for inspection, two accused present and accounted for.”). He checked to see that our beds were properly made and that the closet was tidy, and then he asked whether we had any requests, by which he meant did we have any questions, any complaints, announcements etc., or whether we needed any of the services offered on that particular day. In other words, did we need to see a doctor (Tuesdays), or get new books (Thursdays), or salt, toilet paper, cleaning powder for the toilet bowl (those items were distributed free of charge on Fridays), or whether we needed new slippers or clean sweatpants. They made a note of our requests and left. That was the end of the morning’s business, and what followed was waiting (. . . and more waiting) for lunch. They handed out lunch exactly at twelve. After lunch, there was nothing to do but wait for dinner, which was given out at five. After dinner came a relatively pleasurable period: waiting until seven for the siren to announce the evening rest period. One felt so broken down and tired from sitting in a chair the whole day that one could hardly wait to hear the siren. I passed this time doing my evening exercises and my evening toilet rituals, because on the stroke of seven prisoners were allowed to unfold their beds and crawl into them. It would have been unforgivable to waste a single minute of the allotted rest period on ablutions, given that the time for personal hygiene could be better spent enlivening the wait for the seven o’clock siren.
As soon as the siren went off at seven, the entire prison immediately resounded with the clatter of beds unfolding. In a matter of minutes, we finished folding our clothes and stacking them in so-called “chimneys,” and were in bed. Now came the most beautiful moment of all––reading in bed. Before nine, however, I would get up once for a smoke since no smoking was allowed in the cell after nine. I had it so well timed that as soon as I tossed the butt of my cigarette into the toilet bowl, the next siren announcing lights-out sounded. After that I read no more, and quickly fell asleep.