An astronaut launches into space on a solo mission: to penetrate a mysterious purple cloud (Chopra) that has mysteriously arrived in our part of the universe and is casting a strange purple pall over Earth’s night skies. The astronaut’s aim: to bring back some of the substance of the cloud for analysis and national glory.
Our hero, Jakub Procházka, is a specialist in cosmic dust. He is also the man of the hour in his native Czech Republic as the first Bohemian in outer space. As he goes up, his face is plastered all over the country and his fellow citizens celebrate this new triumph of their small European country—survivor of centuries of invasions, war, and foreign regimes (the most recent being the Soviet Union), and now, through this mission, proudly launching itself onto the world stage in its own right.
In fact, Jakub’s life and the life of his country are intimately entwined. In fact, Jakub’s bid to put his country on the international space exploration map is inextricably tied to his desire to exonerate his family name. In the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when Jakub was a child, the Czech people rose up and overthrew the Communist regime, liberating themselves from a half century of Soviet repression. Yet for some—Jakub’s father for example—the revolution exposes them as the fallen regime’s informers and torturers, and their families must pay the price.
In Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfar spins a great tale of a man, a family, a marriage, and a country—a fierce satire that is also a poetic salute to a deep-rooted world lost—and a strange new world gained.
Jakub travels in the Czech space shuttle JanHus1, full of products (he brushes his teeth up there with SuperZub, “a major distributor of dental supplies and mission sponsor”) and bearing the name of another Bohemian hero. The original Jan Hus was a 15th century religious reformer, deemed a heretic for exposing the corruption of the Church. For this heresy, he was condemned to be burned at the stake. From this pulpit he is said to have uttered: “Sancta simplicitas!” Holy Simplicity.
These are the words Jakub carries to the stars while, on the way, his wife leaves him (she fails to appear for the weekly Skype chat at Czech space headquarters and then goes missing), he must continue giving live public interviews with his millions of citizen-fans, a toothache grows in his jaw, and he discovers that he is not alone in his hurtling flight. At first terrified and doubting his sanity, eventually grateful for the relief from cosmic solitude, he and an alien creature probe each other’s memories and knowledge. Spoiler alert: Nutella is involved.
This tale is wonderfully written, never dull, the invigorating prose jumps in time through different eras, all seen through the space-time continuum of the present.
Here’s our narrator describing the brave new world of capitalist Prague and Wenceslas Square:
“The cube bricks that form the road and oblique rooftops, once witness to thronging crowds of revolutionaries, to bullets, to heads cracked by police batons, now provide a historical feel to a shopping experience. Clothing stores, cafes, strip clubs. Promoters stand in front of the shiny entrances and hand out colorful flyers with pictures of girls and happy hour specials. …I drink the whiskey and wonder if the square isn’t a bit colorless despite the neon, perhaps ripe for another climax of history. Will we ever again march on these bricks in national unity, fighting yet another threat to Europe’s beating heart, or will this new Prague become an architecturally brilliant strip mall?”
It is here, we learn, where he meets his future wife, at an old-school vendor plying burnt sausages and paper cups of booze:
“She invites love. Right away I want good things to happen to her. … Be it the ejection of electrons, ions, and atoms into the universe, or a cocktail of pheromones infiltrating the olfactory receptors of a future lover, some of the essential functions of reality remain a mystery.”
Later, “She takes my face in her hands and studies it, while I take a breath, take two important seconds to realize I am in love and living will never feel as it did before. The alteration to my future, a whole new fate stands here in the form of a slightly drunken beauty… So much we can tell from a single surface eruption. A flare to tear the sun apart. The flares are my fingertips feeling the inside of her thighs, her breath on my neck, her hands pulling up the hem of her dress, her eyes searching for my reaction…. The universe assigned the tasks of speaking and kissing to the lips because there is never a need to do both at the same time.”
The tale swings from memories of an earth-bound life to the disaster of a space mission-gone-awry and the crash-bound return to Earth of a dead-man walking (his supreme sacrifice in outer space already immortalized by a life-size statue in Wenceslas Square).
It’s also part philosophical meditation on human nature: our loneliness as humans in this cosmos, the drive to understand who we are and what we are made of, a gnawing hunger for the truth about our past, and a gnawing fear of our future— individual and collective.
There’s also a keen and wicked eye for the political animals of our home planet, and a loving portrait of the people the author loved and will always love.
Highly recommended for a great ride [sic] read.
Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar, published by Hachette Book Group, a division of Little, Brown, and Company, 2017. Available in paperback Spring 2018.
* * *
Jessica Slote is a writer and teacher. She lives in New York City. Her book, Loretta Auditorium Presents: The Loretta Plays will be published by Fly By Night Press in Spring 2018.