Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tintin the Intrepid

All three of our sons were born in Europe, the two older sons starting school in a bilingual classroom (English/French). We spoke English in the home so the boys would be able to maintain it as their mother tongue, but we also began collecting French books and reading them to the boys from time to time. One of the earlier titles in our collection was Le Secret de la Licorne (The Secret of the Unicorn), one of the adventures of the intrepid hero Tintin
Tintin was the brainchild of Belgian artist Georges Rémi under the name HergéRémi began writing the Tintin stories in 1930's Belgium, and the stories of the boy hero, reporter and world traveler quickly captured the imagination of young people all over the Francophone world. One of my favorite talk show hosts, Tom Ashbrook of NPR's "On Point," interviewed his own French father-in-law on his memories of reading Tintin as a young boy in the midst of the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Director Steven Spielberg has now brought Tintin to the big screen -- none too soon, as the popular European comic series has been translated into more than 50 languages and sold more than 200 millions copies worldwide. I haven't seen the movie yet (The Adventures of Tintin) -- but regardless of how many thumbs up the movie gets, it will bring back many fond memories of families the world over -- including mine.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Havel the Hero

The word "passion" is quite in vogue in our time. We want to find work we are passionate about, we are passionate about our favorite causes, and we like passionate love stories. But when we consider the etymological meaning of the word, it casts itself in a different light: we get our English word from the Greek pathos, meaning "suffering". When you list your passions in terms of what you're willing to suffer for, the list tends to shrink somewhat.

On Sunday, the world lost a man who was passionate in the purest sense of the word: Vaclav Havel, best known in the West as the leader of the 1989 so-called Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, passed away peacefully with his wife at his side. After more than two decades of peaceful protest, often through his plays, Havel and others brought about the demise of the Communist leadership of his country without a single shot being fired. What many of us did not know is that Havel also suffered for his cause, spending four and a half years in a Czech prison for his opposition to the oppressive, Soviet-backed Communist regime of the 1960's.

Two things strike me about the man and his life. First, the fact that a nation would elect a playwright as president. Not a politician, not a businessman, not an economist, not a diplomat. A playwright. A writer. All playwrights are not the same, but good playwrights have at least one thing in common -- an understanding of human nature. Havel seemed to have a grasp on the fundamental drives, the aspirations, the strengths and weaknesses of 20th century mankind, and I find it nothing less than astonishing now, as I did then, that a nation would turn to an artist for leadership. I have long said that artists are the mouthpiece of culture, but it is rare when a people chooses to entrust its political well-being to a playwright. Unfortunately, his leadership was attenuated when his party was voted out and Czechoslovakia became two distinct nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The other thing of note about Havel is that he chose the high road, refusing to yield to the temptation to meet violence with violence. His commitment to the non-violent protest of injustice put him in the company of monumental figures such as Gandhi, King and Mandela, and he doggedly continued to believe and profess that it is actually possible to take the moral high ground, even in the realm of politics. For this he was often dismissed as out of touch with reality. Perhaps he was not the most astute politician, but he will and must always be remembered as a noble statesman who called his people, and indeed the rest of the world who would listen, to higher ground.