Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut novel “Spaceman of Bohemia” has been compared to the extremely popular novel “The Martian” but Kalfar’s novel is far superior. I understand the comparison: both novels are about lone men in space whose solitary “Robinson Crusoe” style adventures find them stranded on their journeys of exploration. While it's enjoyable for some of the plot and scientific detail I thought “The Martian” mostly came across as repetitive and it's suffused with a particularly foul stench of macho bravado. By contrast, “Spaceman of Bohemia” is thoughtful, continuously compelling and says something intelligent about the progress of civilization.
The hero is Jakub Procházka, an astrophysicist with a speciality in cosmic dust which makes him the perfect candidate for the Czech Republic’s first mission into outer space. A comet from another galaxy has streamed through our own solar system leaving a curious cloud between Venus and Earth which has stained our night time sky purple. An opportunistic Czech minister sees a chance for his nation to enter the space race and collect samples of this strange material by sending Jakub on his solitary mission on a second-hand space shuttle. The results are bizarrely thrilling, unexpected and turn into a personal journey which prompts Jakub to survey his position in his own nation’s tumultuous history.
Jakub's journey turns him into a national hero which is particularly significant because of his family's tumultuous history. His father was a Soviet Union stooge when the country was under Communist rule. He engaged in such nefarious activities such as ratting out on neighbours and torturing anti-government prisoners. When the communist regime collapsed in 1989 Jakub's father lost his status and power. Even peripheral members of the family such as Jakub and his grandparents were vilified and discriminated against because of his father's actions. In a particularly harrowing scene they are forced to leave their house: “We leave books that have escaped Austro-Hungarian burnings, German burnings, Stalinist burnings, books that have kept the language alive while regimes attempted to starve it out. We can bring only so much.” This gives a powerful sense of the struggles of common people who've lived in this country which has been bandied back and forth in the fight for political power. The sad result is a gradual deterioration of culture and traditions.
The hope is that Jakub's mission will radically transform the Czech Republic into a leading nations of the world – a dream that quickly sours. Over the course of his dramatic expedition it becomes clear that this journey is much more soul-searching than Jakub first thought. The novel meaningfully considers personal ambition versus personal wellbeing and the private life versus the public life. It's observed how “In one book, your father is a hero. In another book, he is a monster. The men who don’t have books written about them have it easier.” Rather than remaining anonymous, Jakub embarks on making himself into the pride of the nation to eclipse his father's shame, but he loses his beloved wife Lenka in the process. Amidst the dramatic action of his space journey he considers his life with her and what he's lost by letting the weight of his family and his nation's history overwhelm him.
Kalfar is particularly good at enhancing his story with a lot of grit and humour while steering the plot into unexpected avenues. Things get bizarre; there is a lighthearted tension between Jakub's physical and psychological reality. But the story meaningfully shows his gradual growth as an individual emotionally reckoning with the past. Along his journey the book captures all the majesty and wonder of the solar system in a way which manages to be both probingly philosophical and highly playful. It considers the elements of chance, time and how “The slightest gesture makes up our history.” “Spaceman of Bohemia” is a vibrantly pleasurable read that provokes lingering questions about identity and destiny – as well as giving you a craving for jar of Nutella.