Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar
It’s pretty rare that one gets to review something completely new, utterly fresh. Sure, there is no new thing under the sun. There are plenty of stories about spacemen. There are plenty of books about marital breakdown. There are plenty of novels about barely repressed Communist legacies. But there aren’t many that combine the three, and certainly not with as much panache and consummate, mordant wit as Jaroslav Kalfar’s first novel, Spaceman of Bohemia.
Jakub Procházka is the titular Bohemian spaceman, the first Czech astronaut to leave the Earth’s atmospheric swaddling blanket behind. He’s on a mission to a vast interstellar cloud that appeared between the Earth and Venus, to bring back both space dust and national pride. And poor Jakub is going out of his mind. Despite his daily broadcasts proclaiming his cheer, his mental state is disintegrating, as is his marriage. His wife leaves him via Skype. Jakub has nothing to do but sit and drink whisky and wait. And then Hanuš appears.
Jakub is at first baffled and horrified by the presence of Hanuš, a giant space arthropod with a taste for “this spread of Nutella,” and the ability to read minds, but comes to relish his company and alien wisdom as they inhabit what can only be described as a space-bachelor pad.
Add to this already-crowded mix a potent meditation on Czechoslovakia’s communist past — Jakub’s father was a torturer for the secret police, and the sins of the father have been heaped on the son — and there’s the potential for Spacema of Bohemia to go off the rails, to fail to contain its own multitudes. But Kalfar’s novel holds all this together. At times haunting, at times wise, at times darkly hilarious, Spaceman of Bohemia is an assured debut that turns the microscope onto humans and their transcendental smallnesses, from our tininess in the face of the universe to our tininess in the face of ourselves.
Sceptre Books kindly provided me with a review copy of Spaceman of Bohemia.