Jaroslav Kalfař’s funny and moving debut novel, Spaceman of Bohemia, begins pragmatically enough: The Czech Republic’s first astronaut is hurtling through space, and he misses the hell out of his wife. As details are sketched in we learn that we are slightly in the future, and that Jakub Procházka has been flung into the cosmos because a purple cloud of some sort of space dust has collected between Earth and Venus, giving our night sky a purplish tint, and promising answers to whichever country can get up there and collect a sample. Jakub is just the astrophysicist for the job, and Czechia rallies its populace and funding from the private sector to turn the mission into a national act of morale boosting.
Obviously the cracks begin to show almost immediately.
Jakub and his wife, Lenka, have been trying to get pregnant, it hasn’t worked, and Lenka might be leaving him.
Jakub himself is the son of a communist party member who did some terrible things on Moscow’s behalf, and Jakub has some baggage because of it.
Weirdest of all? The enormous, many-eyed, red-lipped alien space-spider who seems to have taken up residence in his ship.
Is the spider real? A hallucination? An effect of Jakub’s weakening mental state? Jakub is never quite sure, and neither is the reader, but it doesn’t really matter. Jakub is in space to research dust, so finding proof of alien life is a nice bonus. The spider, whom Jakub names Hanuš, is on a mission to study alien life, so sharing a space capsule with a human is perfect. He probes Jakub’s mind, excavating his memories and trying to figure out what makes humans tick, and when that isn’t sufficient he samples his food, much to Jakub’s dismay:
I wish I had the capacity to assist with your emotional distress, skinny human. I cannot offer you the solace of Nutella, for I have consumed it.
The space aspect of the story is handled deftly. Jakub floats from room to room, zips himself into a cocoon to sleep, and, late in the novel, embarks on a spacewalk that is described beautifully, although, as I’ve mentioned in my reviews of The Expanse, spacewalks freaking terrify me. So it’s a testament to Kalfař’s writing that reading about Jakub’s spacewalk caused me physical pain.
My tether slid along the side of the ship as I shifted outside, and the unfiltered vacuum tightened around me like bathwater. In the distance, Hanuš was a silhouette within the purple storm. I was not afraid of anything except the silence. My suit was built to eliminate the hiss of oxygen release, and thus all I heard were the faint vibrations of my own lungs and heart. The noise of thought seemed sufficient in theory, but it offered no comfort in physical reality. Without the background racket of air conditioners, the hum of distant engines, the creaks of old houses, the murmur of refrigerators, the silence of nothingness became real enough to make any self-professed nihilist shit his pants.
This isn’t really where the book’s heart lies, however. It’s much weirder than that. In alternating chapters we explore outer space with Jakub, but then we go back constantly to his past. We wrestle with his memories of his parents, grandparents, and his relationship with Lenka. Here the child of high level Party officials is stripped of his old life and status by the Velvet Revolution. Becoming his nation’s hero is meant to redeem the family name, but when he thinks of family it’s his grandparents and their aging dog who come to mind, not his morally bankrupt father and complacent mother.
A key to the book’s tone can be found in his use of humor. Kalfař takes us on a wild ride, and he packs a lot of world history-level tragedy into his book, and this could have ruined the story. You’re already asking us to follow the first Czech into space, then there are his relationship problems, a giant alien spider, and, oh yeah, the fall of communism. But he makes it all work seamlessly by giving us quiet moments that balance grief and humor, like this scene soon after his beloved grandfather’s death:
My body is young, but today I feel old. Too old to become exceptional. I’ve spent the past week listening to my grandmother weep over loud television, episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger pitched at ear-splitting levels, with Chuck Norris dubbed by an actor who used to be an avid Party member. I’ve spent the week boiling water for tea and apologizing to my grandmother over and over again about nothing in particular.
I was reminded of Infinite Jest’s particular brand of humor, too, as Jakub recounts all of his ship’s components, like his toothbrush which came “courtesy of SuperZub, a major distributor of dental supplies and mission sponsor”, his flatscreen entertainment and internet system, “provided through SuperCall (major provider of wireless service and mission sponsor)”, and his sleeping drops, “developed by Laturma, major pharma manufacturer and mission sponsor”… you quickly realize that every inch of this ship has been paid for by a Czech company trying to become an international player. This becomes so pervasive that Jakub’s entire life in space, and all the memories, pain, and fear that come to him, are branded—a stamp of capitalism hemming in the idealism of a human traveling into space in a rocket named for a religious revolutionary. This might seem like an overreach on my part, but one of the themes of the book is the dance between idealism, communism, capitalism, and imperialism that creates the core of 20th Century Czech history.
The book takes the trappings of sci-fi and uses them to grapple with Europe’s past. Rather than taking the easy way and siding with the revolutionaries, Kalfař takes the much harder path of looking at people who benefited from communism in the short term, through no choice or fault of their own, but are then left to pay the price when history turns against them. It isn’t Jakub’s fault that his father is a Party monster, but he’s the one who is punished when Revolutionaries come looking for revenge.
In this case, the Revolutionary, who is called Shoe Man for reasons I don’t want to spoil, haunts the book. In most cases he’d be the hero. A young man hounded by an oppressive regime. A poet who just wants his freedom. But given his freedom, he becomes something far closer to a villain, a living ghost who turns up out of nowhere and changes the course of Jakub’s life.
But it isn’t just the recent past that Kalfař wants to look at. The space capsule is named JanHus1 in honor of Czechia’s famous religious dissident, and Jakub’s thoughts turn repeatedly back to Hus and the proto-Protestant revolution he inspired. Kalfař goes so far as to give Hus a Last Temptation of Christ-esque alternative ending, in which the reformer is able to live out a peaceful life in hiding while his countrymen defy the Catholic Church in the Hussite Wars. The temptation to step outside of history’s flow, to choose the personal over the political, is a constant struggle for Jakub, who has had history forced upon him. But again and again, he’s drawn back to the legend of his nation. When Jakub assigns a name to his friend the space spider he chooses Hanuš. Hanuš was a clockmaker who created the famous Prague astronomical clock in Prague’s Old Town Square, who was blinded by his employers to ensure that he wouldn’t build a second perfect clock for some rival city, but managed to get revenge by resetting the mechanism and stopping the clock.
Except… Hanuš probably didn’t create that clock. He was most likely a fictional character created for Alois Jirásek’s Ancient Bohemian Legends. The legend of a lone man creating a technological miracle, only to have his eyes gouged out so he couldn’t repeat the trick for another government, only to then break the clock so that his attackers would never enjoy the fruits of his labor…well, that’s a fantastic story. That’s the kind of story that can entangle genius, hard work, triumph, tragedy, and repression in a way that sums up the strength of an entire people, as they’re overrun by Nazis, annexed by the Soviets, and fight for freedom only to end up in a morass of corruption and capitalism that doesn’t live up to the promises of the Revolution. And Jakub, for all of his anger, chooses to bind himself to his nation’s history by giving his alien friend a fraught name. He recognizes that he can’t stop the clock on his family’s downfall, the changes in his marriage, or Czechia’s march into the future.
That’s where this book’s greatness lies. By giving us a character who is a culmination of Czech history, Kalfař is able to tackle half a century at once. And by giving that character a deeply personal problem, he’s able to ground the politics in heartbreak. You don’t need to know a thing about Czech to love Jakub and Hanuš, but you’ll probably come to love Jakub’s homeland by the book’s close.
Spaceman of Bohemia is available now from Little, Brown and Company.