Review published on March 14, 2017.
I’d describe this book as a cross between Everything Is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) and The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber). It’s the story of Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut who leaves his wife behind to undertake a noble research mission but soon realises he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind.
In April 2018, Jakub sets out in the JanHus1 space shuttle, launched to investigate cosmic dust storm “Chopra”. Although back in Prague Jakub is seen as a national hero, life in space soon loses its novelty for him; he’s no longer the “dwarf climbing a beanstalk to arm-wrestle the colossus” but rather “a cellular structure of banal needs for oxygen, for water, for the release of waste.” And then his wife, Lenka, stops showing up for their weekly video chats, so he agrees to have her followed. Maybe after their long infertility struggle she’s finally pregnant?
Amid the drudgery of daily life onboard the shuttle, Jakub makes a friend: a giant, alien spider he names Hanuš. Jakub has the sense that Hanuš is sifting through his memories, drawing out the central tragedies that form his motivation for going to space. There’s his parents’ death in a cable car accident when he was 10, the shame and persecution that resulted from his father being a Party loyalist and member of the Secret Police prior to the Velvet Revolution, and the later loss of his beloved grandfather, whose ashes Jakub carries with him in a cigar box.
This debut novel is a terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space. It moves easily between Jakub’s childhood memories, a few highlights of Czech history, including the martyrdom of Jan Hus, and philosophical conversations with Hanuš. As they hurtle towards Chopra (which, Hanuš tells Jakub, contains remnants of the Big Bang), it’s hard to know whether this Nutella-loving spider is real or a hallucination created by an ill mind. In either case, it’s a link to the Czech literary tradition by way of Franz Kafka.
There is much to enjoy here: Jakub’s sometimes baroque narrative voice (“What good am I, a thin purse of brittle bones and spoiling meat?”), which is all the more impressive because Jaroslav Kalfar is in his late twenties and has only spoken English for about 13 years; the mixture of countryside rituals and the bustle of Prague; and the uncertainty about whether Jakub has a viable future, with or without Lenka. I felt the novel went downhill in Part Two and it doesn’t quite pull everything together before its end. However, this is still one of the best debuts I’ve encountered in recent years, and I’ll be eager to see what Kalfar will come up with next.
Rebecca Foster 4/4
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
Sceptre 9781473639966 hbk Mar 2017
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