I have just finished Spaceman of Bohemia (2017) – the debut novel of Jaroslav Kalfař, a 28-year-old Czech-American writer – and I can say it is unlike anything that I have read before.
Reviewers are busy in permutations and combinations – “It’s as if an episode of Star Trek has crashed into Milan Kundera’s The Joke” (The Guardian), “…like Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 crossed with a Milan Kundera novel, set in a Philip K. Dick universe, with a nod to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis” (Library Journal). I felt the novel contained specific elements of three great space movies – the existential density of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the drama of reality versus illusion found in Solaris (1972) and a certain preoccupation with one relations back on earth as explored in Gravity (2013). Yet Kalfař’s project and his voice remain utterly original.
The Bohemian spaceman of the title is Czech astrophysicist Jakub Procházka – sent high up to the stars by his country in a spacecraft named JanHus1 [after the church reformer Jan Hus (1369-1415)] in the year 2018 to investigate a cloud of cosmic dust (named “Chopra” by its discoverers in New Delhi) that has appeared between Venus and Earth. While on mission, Jakub quickly gets lonely, and keeps remembering a line from Robinson Crusoe: Thus we never see the true State of our Condition, till it is illustrated to us by its Contraries; nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.
The spaceman soon finds himself in the company of a talkative giant alien arachnid called Hanuš who is interested in learning about the human race (“humanry”). The funny thing is Hanuš may or may not be real. Despite this confusion, the conversations go on – long and deep and sharp.
Inserted between Jakub’s interactions with Hanuš are blocks of entertaining information on Czech history (medieval through modern), the changing face and features of Prague, the differences between capitalism and communism, tensions with Russia. But at the heart of the story is Lenka, Jakub’s wife, whom he has left behind to chase success and fame, and the village of his childhood, with its pigs and potatoes.
An ambitious and impressive page-turner, Spaceman of Bohemia cuts through hard technological and political layers of narrative to reveal the tender side of human life – its capacity for love and its desire for home. This funny and successful exercise in genre-blending will delight readers of science fiction, philosophy and romance equally.
A few good lines –
On the greatness of nations:
The greatness of a nation is not defined by abstracts, Jakub. It’s defined by pictures. Stories that carry by mouth, by television, immortalized by the Internet, stories about a new park being built and the homeless being fed and bad men being arrested for stealing from good men. The greatness of a nation is in its symbols, its gestures, in doing things that are unprecedented.
On the distinction between hallucinations and delusional perceptions:
He [Dr. Kuřák] was very careful to explain the distinction between hallucinations – a perception in the absence of stimuli that nevertheless holds the qualities of real perception – and delusional perceptions in which a correctly sensed stimulus, or, one could say, a real thing, is given some additional, twisted significance. For delusional perceptions, Dr. Kuřák chuckled, see Kafka. While Freudian theories proposed that hallucinations were the manifestation of subconscious wishes, perversions, even self-flagellation, newer waves of less ego-obsessed psychologists suggested that hallucinations had to do with metacognitive abilities, or “knowing without knowing”. Dr. Kuřák was a bona fide Freudian, thus insisting that should a crisis occur during my time on JanHus1, the entire mythos of my childhood would come pouring out, filling the darkened halls of the ship with visions of horror, fear, pleasure, the naked body of my mother and erect phallus of my father, dreams of misdirected violence, and yes, perhaps even a “friend.” Whatever the theory, my predicament was the same. Kuřák’s predictions of madness seemed to be coming true.
On human freedoms and attachments:
To you, an offspring is a choice, but the pleasure of this freedom is negated by the blackmail of love. If you love a partner, you crave to breed. Once you receive a human offspring, you are bound by love to care for its needs. Such attachments go against the concept of choice as defined by humanry, yet the planet of Earth is filled with these obligations. They define you.
It is worth noting that Jaroslav Kalfař immigrated to America from the Czech Republic at the age of fifteen and learned English through novels and cartoons. He has an MFA from New York University and before that, studied literature and philosophy at the University of Central Florida. Author’s website is jaroslavkalfar.com. Find him on Twitter (@JaroslavKalfar), Facebook (@jaroslavkalfarauthor) and Instagram (www.instagram.com/jaroslavkalfar).