When a comet drive-by leaves a cloud of purple dust in space, altering the familiar view from Earth, the collective response of the nations, of course, is to reach it: to explore, collect, research. The Czechs rocket a man to the Chopra cloud first, sending professor of astrophysics Jakub Procházka as their first astronaut. Thus Spaceman of Bohemia begins with a proud achievement for a country so battered by the machinations of others, now making momentous history of its own.
Several weeks after Jakub’s solitary launch, a (possibly imaginary) memory-probing space spider appears aboard the JanHus1 space shuttle. The spider, whom Jakub names Hanuš after a medieval astronomical clock maker from Prague, probes his thoughts and eats his Nutella in his own scientific exploration to learn about “humanry.” Jakub unearths his childhood fears surrounding the fall of the Communist Party, who his father informed for, and memories: his move to Prague with his grandparents to start anew, his chance first meeting with wife Lenka over whiskey and sausages, their consuming love affair. Now, however, they are estranged, literally, by space and time, and maybe something more permanent. As Jakub travels farther into the depths of space, he reminisces and philosophizes with Hanuš. Themes of freedom, death, the fleetingness of life, violence, oppression, lust and love, revenge, legacy and fear link together the memories along his life’s path, from his youth through his university years and the now fateful decision to become the Spaceman of Bohemia.
Set in a not-so-distant 2018, the first novel by Czech-American author Jaroslav Kalfař defies neat categorization. It is both an adoring ode to and an insider’s critique of the land of Bohemia, chronicling its past subjugations and future possibilities. It’s irreverent and thoughtful, tragic and comic, deadpan and poignant. Writing outside his native tongue, the author creates vivid, occasionally disturbing vignettes. Spaceman Jakub’s rhetorical questions do become tedious at points in the novel; at times, his wonderings overwhelm, making it hard for the reader to digest one round before Kalfař moves on to other musings. Though the narrative seems to come full circle, it felt slightly unfinished, abruptly truncated. These caveats, and my personal arachnophobia aside, Spaceman of Bohemia entertains and enlightens.