Book Review: Spaceman of Bohemia
by Jaroslav Kalfař
Little, Brown, 2017
“The greatness of a nation is not defined by abstracts,” a pompous, self-serving politician tells Jakub Procházka at one point in Jaroslav Kalfař’s whimsical, deceptively searching debut novel Spaceman of Bohemia, “It’s defined by pictures. Stories that carry by mouth, by television, immortalized by the Internet … The greatness of a nation is in its symbols, its gestures, in doing things that are unprecedented.”
The words might be oily, but they apply particularly to hapless Jakub, an astrophysics professor who’s hurtling away from Earth in the Czech spacecraft JanHus1, a lone man representing the dreams and ambitions of the Czech Republic (and a long list of corporate sponsors). His mission is to travel to a vast and disconcerting new space anomaly, a “sandstorm of intergalactic dust” that’s swept into the inner solar system and taken up a steady and seemingly stable position between Earth and Venus. It’s 2018, and the superpowers of the world show no interest in exploring this odd phenomenon whose New Delhi discoverers have dubbed it Chopra … and so the Bohemian dream takes flight. Jakub leaves his wife Lenka behind (their tense, monitored in-flight video calls end up making the separation worse rather than better) and heads out to Chopra, where he will collect samples and analyze them on the months-long trip back to Earth. The mission is all the more sharpened by the fact that for all its stability, the space cloud seems to be consuming its own matter, and scientists can’t figure out why.
Kalfař turns Jakub’s trip out to Chopra into a beguiling mix of tedium and activity, paranoia and illusion. The spaceman of Bohemia depends on the video calls to his wife, and when she abruptly breaks them off, he’s shattered. And his increasing distance from Earth serves to magnify both his alarm and his wonder:
Earth was now a shining point deep within the heavens, a home reduced to a unit of punctuation. Once a day, I focused my telescope to remind myself of the blues and whites awaiting me upon my return, a plant willing to sustain me and those I knew. In comparison to those magnifications of my planet, Venus seemed quite dull and every bit as hostile as its never-ending thunderstorms and volcanic explosions, its surface a deceptively still malt of sand and rock. The planet was pale and static when viewed through the thick haze of cloud Chopra, still two weeks away and thus appearing motionless, though daily readings offered proof that the cloud was continuing to collapse on itself.
And to further complicate matters, the JanHus1 seems to have taken on another passenger, a telepathic arachnoid alien who may or may not be a figment of Jakub’s imagination; on the one hand, Jakub can actually feel the creature, which indicates it’s real; on the other hand, the creature likes Nutella, a sure sign of somebody being largely fictitious. And either way, there’s something undeniably daring about the way Kalfař takes up such a hoary cliché and plays with it, as though daring his readers to call the whole thing derivative (likewise the sheer chutzpah necessary to have the one book Jakub brings with his for his long journey be Robinson Crusoe). But Spaceman of Bohemia flows along with such companionable low-key energy that it’s doubtful readers will worry over this or that detail they may have seen in other novels. In fact, so charming is the overall affect of this debut that readers will even tend to forgive its author for his occasional lapse into semi-pretentious navel-gazing like this:
Probability theory examines mathematical abstractions of non-deterministic events. It also studies measured quantities that may either be single occurrences or evolve over time in an apparently random fashion. If a sequence of random events is repeated many times, patterns can be detected and studied, thus creating the illusion that human observers can truly know and understand chaos. But what if our existence itself is a field of study in probability conducted by the universe? For each of us a character, a mathematical abstraction set up with attributes copied from previous subjects, with a slight variation (switch Oedipal complex for Electra complex, exchange crippling social anxiety for narcissism), sent out with similar instincts – the fear of death, the fear of loneliness, the fear of failure.
Kalfař rounds his story out with such intriguing intelligence, in fact, that readers will probably be willing to forgive him just about anything, and there isn’t much to forgive here: the book’s many strengths far outweigh its occasional freshman indulgences (and for his allowable if wince-inducing treacle; he begins his Acknowledgments by thanking his country). Spaceman of Bohemia is a charming modern fable of literal alienation. Here’s hoping it gets the readership it deserves.