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A Utopia of Friends

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
On the Charles Bridge, Prague, 1991

Book reviewers are not referred to on occasion as “The Cavilry” for nothing. And despite all the foregoing praise for Crain’s craftsmanship, I find I have a cavil. This story is written in the “free indirect style” (i.e., by identified third person). Normally the narrator has access to the present-tense contents of the protagonist’s mind, and that’s it. But Crain’s narrator, in three places, lets slip that he has a kind of special knowledge, that he knows Jacob’s future. It’s not a persistent aspect of the narration. It happens three times only, but each time, it’s a jolt. For me it did something to the ontology of the tale that I didn’t like. Maybe this is nothing.

I’ve so far resisted the temptation to select a bouquet of felicities from the text of Necessary Errors. Here are a few: “He couldn’t tell if she might really be offended underneath the pretending to be.” “His eyes took on the self- consciousness of someone who is delaying a greeting.” “He was a stranger here. He wasn’t known to any of these people. A girl with a bandanna tied across her forehead as a headdress glanced down bashfully under his stare, and then up again to see if he was still looking. All these people were so happy in not knowing him.”

And this is Jacob on art and revolution:

The powerless tried to reach across with their art, he reasoned, but it was in the failure of the attempt that the powerful found their pleasure, which the powerless misunderstood as sympathy. The better the art, the more poignant the failure. The only one who really suffered under the illusion was the artist.

I should add a brief appreciation of Crain’s treatment of politics, world politics. It’s true that the odd times we live in haven’t yet found their reflection in transcendental fictional art. Think of it: the universal secular religion embodied in the socialist project is finished, disgraced; the interim successor, a social democracy hybrid, is decomposing; regnant unchecked neoliberalism appears itself to be in severe crisis.

Crain has told, subtly, the story of a temporary utopia of friends briefly established on the lip of a volcano as socialism exits the scene in the Czech Republic. Except for one character who has elected to work for the victors, Jacob and his friends experience the confounding moment in recognizable variants of the way intelligent, educated people of good will everywhere have done, are doing.

Here is Jacob in an exchange with an embittered Danish leftist named Hans:

Hans smiled falsely. “It is understandable that an American should have trouble with, how should I say it, the idea of ideals. In your country they are hardly a force in public affairs.”
“Oh no, they are,” Jacob said.
“Then you shall tell me the name of the ideal that inspired your country to overthrow Allende, who was democratically elected, and to replace him with Pinochet, a torturer and a murderer. Do you know to what I am referring?”
“Yes, Chile,” Jacob was able to answer, but only because he had once read a novel about the coup. He felt a chill in his stomach and drank more of the sekt, to calm himself. “But it happened without our knowledge.”
“Ah, the American people and their knowledge. Indeed, they were so upset that a few years later their government gave money to death squads in El Salvador, and your military supervised torture in El Salvador’s prisons.”
Was this true? It seemed suspicious to Jacob that he had never heard the question argued before in this way, as if America were culpable rather than inadvertently complicit. He reproached himself for never having cared to find out the facts. It was surprising how tender he was about his country’s honor; he had always thought of himself as merely a critic, but his mouth was now dry with apprehensiveness….
His thinking mind, as he walked, repeated the stages of the argument and struggled to improve his position, looking for new defenses and new points of attack—America’s benevolence to Western Europe and the Third World…. But his deeper mind had fallen still.

We follow these exchanges over power politics and responsibility with sympathy for these confused young people of Crain’s in 1990 Prague. From the vantage point of 2013, the portents in the events of those days as Crain describes them show darkly. Much in Eastern Europe has gone badly. Here is G.M. Tamás, a dissident libertarian philosopher under communism in both Romania and Hungary, summarizing the state of things in a 2013 interview in New Left Review. Speaking of the revolution against Ceau¸sescu, he says:

I don’t for a moment regret having fought against the “socialist” regime—mendacious, stupid, brutal…. But I dislike very much the results of those struggles…. People like Wałesa, Havel, Kuroń and the rest (myself included) presented their ideals as something Western—a synonym of success—to the extent of cheering on the Gulf War. When the measure of the collapse of a civilization was finally taken—while we old dissidents were still celebrating freedom, but already being accused by the new powers-that-be of being rootless-cosmopolitan 68ers, fornicators, gays, Roma-lovers and, worst of all, fe-mi-nists—then it was too late.

While the Czech Republic’s economy is seen as a relative success story among countries of the former Eastern Bloc, corruption there has reached spectacular heights. The most recent scandal, in June, reached the office of the prime minister and culminated in his resignation.

There’s always more to say about a novel like this. I could for example have said more about another theme present in the book, namely Jacob Putnam’s notion of gay sexuality as ideally a game without rules or limits, a sort of utopia of its own.

We’re not through with narratives about the Getting of Wisdom, Americans Abroad, Coming of Age, Gay Coming of Age, New Lost Generations. Among such works, a new narrative will be measured against Caleb Crain’s fine book, which will endure as a powerful entry in the great fictional exploration of the meanings of liberation.

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