In Prague on an Errand
By Caleb Crain
It’s 1990, the year after the Velvet revolution, and Prague is in transition. Communism is on its way out; private retail has only just become legal; everyone is a little lost, a little confused, standing idly in the gap between the country’s past and future. That gap, its unique hopefulness, its almost tangible nervousness, is what Caleb Crain tackles in his debut novel, Necessary Errors. A new identity is on its way, but “for the moment there is this clumsiness. It is an interlude.”
It’s also an interlude for Crain’s protagonist, Jacob Putnam, a young Harvard graduate who’s left a comfortable Massachusetts desk job for an English-teaching post in Prague. What exactly he’s hoping to find in the former Soviet satellite is mysterious to him — perhaps it isn’t something he can name until he has actually found it, or until the urge to find it had passed. Readers who have gone to Prague in their youth (like this reviewer) will in some way recognize what Crain is trying to capture here. Jacob has temporarily put his “real” life on hold to carry out a quest that “took the shape of a story he wanted to live out. It was a common enough project for an earnest, idealist young person.” And perhaps Jacob can’t initially identity what he’s looking for – the spirit of the revolution? – because he doesn’t want to admit to being that earnest, that idealist, that young.
On his adventure, Jacob encounters fellow travelers, expats, former dissidents — all in Prague to live out the implications of characteristics they wish they could possess. There’s the Irish Annie, covering up her innate sensitivity with jaded humor and the smoke of an endless chain of Sparta cigarettes, and the German Kaspar, who worked against the communists only to switch sides once their fall had become inevitable. There’s fellow American Rafe, who “does not like to have a home,” and Rafe’s girlfriend, the “English beauty” Melinda Stone, who passively merges with Rafe’s story until she begins to wonder whether or not it’s really her own. Like Jacob, they’re searchers, and their search, it seems, is to find a way of stopping time within oneself, or, failing that, to learn the skill, the art, of squeezing all possible life and meaning from transitory moments.
The search is romantic in more ways than one. There’s the romance with Czechoslovakia, with the memory of its revolution, and then there are more standard human romances. Jacob’s “project,” he feels, is somehow tied up with “the problem of love.” He’s still reeling from a heartbreak he’d suffered back home with a man named Daniel, a world-weary journalist, older and wiser than Jacob. Jacob’s desire to amass different experiences, whether he realizes or not, is at least partially about recreating himself in Daniel’s image, or in the image of someone Daniel could have loved. Rafe, upon learning of Jacob’s hapless love life, tells him his sojourn is “The best sort of freedom, then – vengeful.” Back home, Jacob wouldn’t have minded having his freedom limited by Daniel, but the desire to limit hadn’t been mutual. His traveling goals, then – to improve himself in the name of a former lover, but also to outgrow, forget, and replace that lover – are self-contradictory, leaving him with a paradoxical, “vengeful” freedom that’s both melancholy and exhilarating.
In one of many overlaps between Jacob’s circumstances and Prague’s, we realize he’s only partially “out.” Rafe, for instance, doesn’t know the full extent of Jacob’s romantic situation – namely, his sexuality. Jacob has just recently discovered it himself, and, though open in America, it takes him the length of the novel to come out to all his companions abroad. Explaining his half-hiding, he says “It’s transitional.” As is, of course, the identity of the country he’s visiting.
Set on attaining the elusive goal of his “project,” with the “thought that love would bring him this discovery,” Jacob explores the city’s underground gay scene. He finds that the only gay place in town, T-club, is guarded by doorman Ivan, who cruelly exercises his complete control over Jacob’s admission. It’s difficult to understand what exactly Ivan wants when he makes Jacob wait long hours to enter; his decisions regarding whom to permit and whom to prohibit seem arbitrary and illogical, a nod to how oppressive systems of power determine one’s access to other people and thus to relationships.
Fortunately, Jacob eventually meets the handsome Luboš (his name is from the same Slavic root as “love”), and they begin seeing each other outside of the club. There’s only one problem: Luboš doesn’t speak English and Jacob has, at best, a rudimentary grasp of Czech. Crain uses literal communication barriers (the obstructive Ivan; Jacob’s general lack of access to a telephone, common in the Soviet economy even at that late date; and, of course, linguistic difficulties) to underline other communication barriers in love, especially gay love. Is the other person interested? How can one tell? “Underground” love, the kind that has to hide from aboveground society, necessitates a new code, a new language.
Initially, it seems to Jacob that the language barrier actually forces a kind of rare sincerity into their communication:
The energy that ordinarily went into complicating or refining one’s speech instead had to be devoted to simplifying it. It wasn’t possible to mislead each other, Jacob decided, when it took so much effort merely to reach across the space between them.
Working with his small vocabulary, Jacob has to use words that get to the point, so to speak, and he finds himself in situations where in fact “he said more than he had meant to, as one often does in a language one doesn’t quite know.” It’s almost as if the language barriers unblock communication, since they frustrate our usual means of dissimulation.
Fittingly, Crain treats us to interesting linguistic tidbits. The Czech version of the fairy tale “once upon a time” is “bylo nebylo” — “There was and there wasn’t.” The Czech lover can say “I miss you” impersonally, since “In Czech, missing had to be said in the third person singular, like raining,” making for a less risky confession. Pronouns can be formal or informal, delineating relationships. Jacob finds himself in linguistic predicaments loaded with meaning, like when he has to phrase the past tense by “pointing a finger over his shoulder, as if the past were literally behind him.” But when he learns how to say the tense correctly, he realizes “It was easier to speak of the past in Czech than Jacob had expected.” The past, it seems, follows one even into foreign languages and foreign lands. Ota, a young man he meets at the T-club, tells him “You must explain [yourself]. I know, that it is hard work, translation, but is rewarding.” It turns out to be rewarding not just for the listener, but for the speaker, who, through this imposed effort, and through the contrast with the other, must more precisely understand his own meaning.
Ultimately, as much as it seems to Jacob that he’s making an unusually honest connection, it turns out that dissimulation is inescapable — false selves are part of love. The handsome Luboš has a secret: he’s a prostitute, a phenomenon that’s on the rise in Prague’s gay community. So much for the impossibility of misleading each other.
Why veer in this direction? Crain’s move here is a symbol of Czechoslovakia’s encroaching capitalism. Now that the economy is changing, there’s more opportunity to sell oneself, both physically and mentally, and less opportunity not to. Initially, Jacob looks down at Luboš from the height of self-righteousness, but then he realizes that judging the Czech for his choices is a more difficult matter. After all, in his exile, Jacob is fleeing that exact aspect of capitalism. In his former American workplace, he’d experienced the marketing of self as corporate, rather than sexual, but that sale had still been analogous to Luboš’s prostitution. Jacob could have continued at his desk-job, making money by selling his ideas to companies that would use them to make yet more money, but he wanted to disassociate the self – its thoughts, ideas, feelings, meanings – from capital. He’d fled American conditions for those he imagined would be fundamentally different:
It was an implicit promise of the socialism dying in Czechoslovakia that money should stain no one’s spirit, and the part of Jacob that wanted to hold itself pure had been taken in by that promise.
In the transition, that promise is being lost; Jacob’s sincerity is quickly becoming a relic. Kaspar tells Jacob that “Under capitalism no one will take any trouble to persuade another, only to buy him.” And with his first Czech love affair, Jacob learns this lesson in its romantic incarnation: the gentle art of persuasion – of making someone want you – is replaced by heavy-handed trade. Jacob realizes, while witnessing a couple of friends fall in love with each other, that “It was a mistake to think that in the new world they would be able to care in the old way. In the new world you had to find something of value and learn not to care for it. You had to learn how to sell it.”
The prostitution subplot is one of many instances in Crain’s novel that make us wonder whether a country’s economic system determines the quality, or even the possibility, of certain kinds of relationships. Does communism promote tribalism, capitalism globalism, as this seems to imply? Look at this exchange between Annie and the Czech Jana on the subject of businesses:
“Oh, in shops we are barbarians,” Jana admitted.
“Not if one is a regular,” Annie qualified. “They’re quite fond of me in my Palmovka sweet shop, for example.”
“Because they know you,” Jana said. “You are theirs. But that is not yet civilization. It is only… family.”
“But in exchange perhaps one feels that it means more, somehow.”
“Still we must leave it behind,” Jana said.
Under the former system, life was made up of intimate connections, a familiar community that couldn’t be bought because it wasn’t for sale. Of course, there were disadvantages: exclusion was all too common. But now there’s the sense that progress — “civilization” — means forming relationships that are monetary and impersonal. Anyone can be included for the right price; inclusion will still be rare, but it will be a different, less meaningful rarity. And the feeling of exclusion might change as well: of the peaceful Czech drunks who “never did anything worse than sing and tell rambling stories,” Jacob thinks that “If they lived a little longer in the marketplace, experience of rivalry and inadequacy might give them more of a wish to hurt one another.” Along with the economic macrocosm, Crain peppers his story with musings on the micro, an exploration of economics within a relationship: talk of “leverage” (which “feels American”) and “bringing an asset of value to the marriage,” of the “currency of gay life” and the “price” of romantic opportunities. His setting allows Jacob to ruminate on how the economy affects and functions in love, happiness, alliances, in how we see others and ourselves in relation to them.
“And will it always be like that?” asks Jacob’s Scottish friend Thom. “Will you always be wandering? […] You’re free but you’re cut free.” There is a difference, revealed in how the native and traveling characters approach the concept, between the freedoms to build and to unbuild. Czechs are, understandably, looking forward to the economic change, equating capitalism with release from Soviet restraints. But for our Western exiles, the reverse seems true. For them, it’s freeing to be in a place where one can hardly be expected to make much money or acquire many possessions, where one can escape the pressures of earning and productivity in the material as well as the immaterial realms. Abroad, they can unmake the selves that they’ve so carefully constructed back home. In an astute moment, Jacob asks, “I wonder if it lasts […] Don’t you think that eventually here becomes your real here? The charmless here?” And the answer, given by the ever-more-astute Melinda, might summarize the novel: “Now I wonder if we’re discussing exile […] or merely adulthood.”
Every Bildungsroman begins with a hero’s mistaken perspective. The title of this one promises a series of necessary errors, and it delivers on the promise in surprisingly complex ways. Are there, in fact, errors that aren’t necessary, and actions that aren’t errors? What might make an error “necessary” — does it purge; does it bring the knowledge of an otherwise unattainable subjective experience; can it be, in its own right, beautiful and ineffable? Or is it that, especially in a novel where even love is often termed a mistake, there’s another meaning to the word “necessary” — unavoidable, inevitable, hopeless? Acting as English teacher, Jacob deals with “errors” in language, but, as mentioned earlier, he finds that errors in communication actually lead to greater understanding. It’s a communication error that allows him to engage in a love affair with Luboš, one that he would have otherwise avoided. At the end of it, he thinks he has learned his lesson: “He had been naive, and from now on he would be sophisticated.” The more “sophisticated” Jacob aims to approach romance as an “adult”: with “indifference to outcome” and acceptance of its fated demise. The only thing is, we’re never sure what’s accurate and what’s an error, which lessons are learned correctly which are only ever-greater delusions.
A Bildungsroman must bring its hero to the truth, but what if the truth is elusive? Even as adults, we don’t have an easy time answering these questions: Is growing up about forsaking freedom for responsibility? Is it about making rational decisions, giving up on unrealistic idealism, on a certain romantic image of yourself? Is it about progress, or patience with the lack thereof? When Jacob finally leaves for home, it’s because he feels compelled “to move forward, a need the illusion of which he was to chase for a number of years.” Neither Jacob nor the reader can tell, without the wider picture of his life as a whole, whether he’s hitting or missing, whether he’s wasting time or living the best year of his life.
In this story about transitions and detours, of confusion over what exactly constitutes progress as opposed to a setback, Jacob worries that “He might never get anything for his pains but the experience of having wandered.” But as Crain’s novel so wonderfully captures, there’s something to the experience of wandering, or aimlessness searching for an aim. In some ways, as Jacob finds in his frustrated efforts to write a story, “it was a story about not wanting to tell a story.” Necessary Errors is 480 pages, but it might have been half or twice that; it might have been any number. Since there’s little plot to be had, few ribbons to tie up, we, alongside Jacob, roam the city restlessly, exploring for the sake of exploring, going down side streets that may reveal meaningful, memorable moments or may, on the contrary, not lead anywhere. Those who have wandered will recognize how poignantly Crain distills the essence of that time.
Necessary Errors’ post-revolutionary Prague is, of course, a coming-of-age analogy. “Are you a teacher in America?” ask Jacob’s students. “I don’t know what I am in America,” he tells them. “We neither […] We do not know what we are, in the new Czechoslovakia.” The question is whether the transition between economic systems is similar to a turnover of mental systems – from those of youth into those of adulthood. They’re wildly different ways of seeing, of being in the world, and, as with communism and capitalism, it’s difficult to say which of the two is “erroneous.” Maybe they both are.
Y. Greyman is a freelance writer living in New York, working on a PhD in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaching composition at Brooklyn College.