JUNE 23, 2017
JAROSLAV KALFAŘ’S outstanding debut novel Spaceman of Bohemia is simultaneously shocking, terrifying, wondrous, funny, and beguiling — the “Great Game” rehearsed by lesser players. While superstates dither to avoid risking their resources and reputations, the Czech Republic sends astrophysicist Jakub Procházka on a crucial mission to collect space dust. Off Jakub goes toward the sun on an adventure laden with symbolism and complex intertext, aboard a secondhand Swiss rocket with a new paintjob, its snack bars sponsored by the Czech confectionary industry. Along the way, Jacob struggles with a range of challenges — a hairy alien, the specter of his father, wet dreams, live-streaming social media. He suffers a near-death experience, is rescued, and returns to Earth a different man. Instead of following in the wingbeats of Icarus, Kalfař’s Spaceman is undone not by hubris, but by dust.
Though decked out in the trappings of science fiction, the novel is a work of postmodern Gothic that explores the ghosts haunting our globalized interior monologue. While most of the story is set in outer space, the real action takes place inside Jakub’s head. Kalfař’s talent lies in his elegant handling of the three omniscient ghouls traveling with Jakub: Czech history, his alien companion, and the Czech literary canon itself.
Jakub’s father was an interrogator with Czechoslovakia’s secret police, and not even the passage of time and the collapse of the regime he propped up can eradicate this personal skeleton — represented in the novel by zombies posing as former political dissidents. Further bumps in the long historical night occur when Bohemian “heretic” Jan Hus revisits his country 600 years after he was burned alive in Konstanz, only to depart again as the flaming rocket JanHus1. R.U.R., Karel Čapek’s early 20th-century play that gave the world the word “robot,” shares a character’s name with this text — Jakub himself. Like the Jakub in R.U.R., the Spaceman is more of a witness than a participant in the catastrophic parade of progress. The protagonist’s moniker could also be a hat-tip to Jakub Arbes, originator of the first fictional time machine in central European literature, in the still untranslated classic Newtonův mozek (Newton’s Brain), first published in 1877. That novel’s narrator undertakes a similar journey through Czech history and draws similar conclusions. Jakub’s surname also offers a hint at the author’s ambition in poking fun at cultural identity: “Procházka” is a common enough Czech name meaning “stroll” or “jaunt,” with more than a hint of “idler” or “itinerant” — hence, this “bohemian” wanderer of the spaceways.
An army of other ghosts from the Czech literary canon visits the text, providing the educated reader many moments of light comedy. There is a fabulously overloaded scene featuring Jakub and his wife fornicating energetically inside Prague’s famous medieval astronomical clock, nearly but not quite damaging Saint Andrew. Why there? Why Saint Andrew? Specters from 1,200 years of vernacular Czech writing abound, but the sequence is most easily read as a critique of Milan Kundera’s smut. Kalfař shows further playfulness with Czech surnames by giving those responsible for risking his life on such a vainglorious enterprise the names of barnyard animals.
Unique and engaging as the narrative is, it is not without its faults. Jakub’s conversations with his hairy alien often turn into tiresome commentaries on psychoanalysis, his frequent onanism undermines the comic-sublime tone, and there is occasional evidence that the editing process ended with a deadline rather than when the story was complete. More concerning than these internal flaws, however, is the odd manner in which some commentators have remarked on the novel. In one prominent British review, the book has been called a “translation,” while another refers to Kalfař as a “Czech prodigal son.” But though the author was born in Bohemia (and still speaks Czech beautifully), he arrived in the United States at age 15 and wrote this debut novel in his adopted language. Indeed, it is becoming less unusual for “foreign” novelists to write in English, if only to reach as wide a readership as possible, and it is unfortunate that reviewers still have trouble understanding the precise location of such transnational talents.
But wherever we may locate him, Jaroslav Kalfař is most definitely an author worth watching, judging by this shrewd and puckish exercise in what might be called intergalactic Gothic.