In Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia, it’s 2018 and things are even more unsettling than they are in the real 2018, because the nighttime sky has been permanently veiled by a purple haze, a cloud of cosmic dust leftover from a passing comet.
While leading nations mull over the prospect of sending one of their own to investigate the potentially deadly substance, the Czech Republic sees an opportunity. Still recovering from the rise and fall of communism and tempted by the glory that a successful mission would bring, the small European nation offers up a man. Jakub Prochazka, an astrophysicist, has been chosen by the government to make the eight-month solo journey to the dust, which hovers somewhere around Venus, and the reader is along for the ride.
During takeoff, Jakub is fresh-faced and dignified (he refuses to drink water should he urinate and ruin the purity of the mission). In the beginning, he dutifully performs his daily rituals designed to keep him in-check: he walks on a hamster wheel-like treadmill, he needlessly checks to make sure the spaceship is on course, he tests the cosmic dust collector to ensure proper functioning, he holds off on eating all of his snacks at once. And then he starts to lose his cool.
As Jakub flies further away from Earth, distance is (predictably) created between him and his longtime girlfriend, Lenka. Pre-take off, Lenka was encouraging and supportive, but alone on Earth she quickly begins to see through the rose-colored lens of her relationship. She halts her video chats with Jakub, and our hero essentially goes through a breakup alone in space.
But he’s not really alone. Shortly into the mission we meet…we don’t know what. Maybe an alien. Maybe a hallucination. Jakub never finds out, and fittingly, neither do we. It has eight hairy legs, too many eyes to count, human lips, yellowing teeth, smells of “a combination of old bread, old newspapers in a basement, and a hint of sulfur” and comes from an entire civilization of beings just like him. He names the spider-like creature Hanuš, after the medieval clockmaker who created and destroyed the Prague astronomical clock (a story in and of itself, not unlike this one).
Hanuš is physically repulsive, but Kalfar manages to make him (or her? Or neither?) likeable and comforting. Like most fictive aliens, he’s extremely intelligent. Hanuš has the power to mentally probe Jakub’s memory bank, bringing some of his most important memories to the surface, thereby forcing him to confront his demons and shedding light on the real reasons he accepted the mission.
We witness a happy, and then not-so-happy childhood. We get to know the Prochazka men who came before him, both key agents in the spaceman’s destiny. Jakub’s grandfather, whose ashes he carries with him to space, was a man of the earth (hours before the Velvet Revolution, Grandpa was out back cutting the throat of a pig, collecting the blood for soup and sausage, peeling the skin, boiling the head.) Jakub’s father possessed the same ruthless proclivities, but under much darker circumstances.
We watch Jakub fall in love, the way most people do—through banal but conscious moments of connection. The two are blissful, humdrum, imperfect, and relatable. Kalfar beautifully illustrates the complexities of a modern relationship.
The rest of the story, which has to be read to be believed, involves a near encounter with death, a Russian space fleet, a cross-country journey by land and sea, and a redemptive reunion.
Kalfar’s debut novel proves him to be a master storyteller. Both heavy and humorous, Spaceman of Bohemia is a story for the world-weary, the adventurous, the heartbroken, and the existentially curious, not to mention the philosophically-inclined. At the story’s close, our narrator muses: our routines, our religions, our revolutions—isn’t it all in an effort to declare truths? We’ve been trying to answer the big questions since the dawn of man, but maybe some things are best left undiscovered. Perhaps the big mystery is what keeps the world turning.
Spaceman of Bohemia
by Jaroslav Kalfar
Little, Brown & Company; 276 p.