Necessary Errors – Caleb Crain

necessary-errors-coverI had no idea Necessary Errors was set in Prague until it serendipitously turned up on my doorstep a week before my move here. It was a very appropriate book to read while settling into my new city.

Necessary Errors is about recent Harvard graduate Jacob who has escaped the monotony of an office job in the States to follow an urgent desire to immerse himself in the transition of Czechoslovakia to a democratic country. However Jacob can’t shake the feeling that he has arrived too late. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution having happened a year earlier, he feels as though a slice of history has slipped through his fingers.

Working as an English teacher, Jacob is himself living through a transitional period. Crain perfectly captures this in-between life that many young expats have. A temporary life, on pause, until they return to reality. Many times while reading Necessary Errors, I was reminded of a friend on her Erasmus year once talking about life back in the UK as “the real world”. When I was twenty and living in Prague (also as an English teacher) I had similar ideas. However I was not as serious and thoughtful as Jacob in the novel. He often ponders his time in Prague and there are many passages that beautifully express his thoughts.

Jacob wanted to believe that he was staying for some purpose other than mere postponement – for some reason other than a reluctance to face up to what his native country would allow him to be. He accepted that he was losing time. He might never catch up, but maybe the delay itself was somehow a part of who he was going to be”.

Crain has the power of retrospect, because he also lived in Prague in the early nineties. It is clear the character of Jacob is loosely based on himself. If he came back today he would find a very different Prague. A colorful variety of shops and exotic luxuries readily available. He wouldn’t have to search out one of the only gay bars and struggle with the bouncers for admittance. I’ve made a few notes about Jacob’s Prague compared to my own.

Františkánská Zahrada

Jacob searches for the gay bar T-Club which is tucked away near Můstek on an alley with boarded-up gates at one end. He didn’t realise that there was a garden hidden behind these gates. Today this calm and orderly garden is open to the public. Workers spend their lunchtime here and tourists walk through to escape the crowds of nearby Wenceslas Square.


Valdštejnská Zahrada

Jacob visits this spot with his boyfriend. These 17th century gardens, with a stunning view of the castle, are one of my favourite places to go in the summer (and Vojanovy sady around the corner – a perfect park to sit in with a good book). Jacob and Milo stop by a statue which I probably would have walked right past…

“A clean-minded viewer was supposed to understand that the statue represented the men just before the lower threw the upper off his balance, but as a statue the statue belied this interpretation, because it held them together eternally in poise, and where the lower man placed his hand on the upper one’s thigh, and the upper one placed his hand over that hand, it was just as possible to imagine that the pressure of the second hand was intended to confirm and hold that of the first one.”


The Stalin Monument

The huge monument of Stalin in Letna was destroyed in the sixties. For a brief period in the early nineties the bunker underneath was turned into a rock club. Crain describes an uncomfortable evening that Jacob and his friends spend in the dark and grimy bar. There’s an installation in the corner by David Černý (who is still producing work – if you are ever in Prague, you should really check out some of his sculptures).

As far as I know, other than the metronome which stands there now, this place hasn’t been used for much, other than as a viewing platform and a hang out for skateboarders. However this spring a new outdoor bar called Stalin opened, providing somewhere interesting to drink and dance on a warm, summer evening.


Photo Credit: Wikepdia

Some may find Necessary Errors a bit slow and meandering but I think it will appeal to readers on different levels, whether you are half way through a gap year or want to feel the nostalgia of a similar in-between period in your life. I’d also recommend this book to people interested in the recent history of the Czech Republic and writers struggling to find words.

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