SPACEMAN OF BOHEMIA
All new books, but debut novels especially, are blind dates. The raconteur who charmingly burbles during drinks is tapped out of stories by the time the oysters arrive; the genius who wears his erudition so lightly over appetizers starts clubbing you over the head with it during dessert. ( No, your mind screams when things turn . And it was all going so well. )
I start a lot of debut novels in this job. Most betray me at some point or another — though a few make my heart do cartwheels, or at least a pirouette.
Jaroslav Kalfar’s “Spaceman of Bohemia” is not a perfect first effort. But it’s a frenetically imaginative one, booming with vitality and originality when it isn’t indulging in the occasional excess. Kalfar’s voice is distinct enough to leave tread marks. He has a great snout for the absurd. He has such a lively mind and so many ideas to explore that it only bothered me a little — well, more than a little, but less than usual — that this book peaked two-thirds of the way through. Sigh. Don’t we all.
The cast of this production is small. The spaceman of the title is Jakub Prochazka, a Czech astrophysicist who, as the book opens in 2018, launches into space from a state-owned potato field. Just 18 months earlier, a comet from a neighboring galaxy had swept into the Milky Way, bringing with it a cloud of intergalactic dust that permanently “bathed Earth’s nights in purple zodiacal light, altering the sky we had known since the birth of man.”
The cloud was unbudging, and therefore unnerving. Then it started to consume itself. Someone had to investigate. The Czech Republic is the first country to offer a human to hoover up particle samples. So away Jakub goes, seeking honor for his country and redemption of his family name. Before the Velvet Revolution , his father had been a member of the Communist Party’s secret police.
“Your father was a collaborator, a criminal, a symbol of what haunts the nation to this day,” says the senator who recruits Jakub for the journey. “As his son, you are the movement forward, away from the history of our shame.”
But solitary space travel — eight months in Jakub’s case; four out and four back — is not without its problems. It is hell on his marriage, for instance. Thirteen weeks into his voyage, Jakub’s wife, Lenka, leaves him, occasioning a major reckoning with his motives for undertaking such a dangerous mission. (It also gives him many excuses to drain his stash of whiskey. Deep space is no place to experience marital strife.)
Space travel is also hard on Jakub psychologically. At roughly the same moment that his wife leaves, a monstrous, hairy spider appears on the spaceship. For a while, we assume that it’s a hallucination, a companion spun from Jakub’s lonely imagination. (His state-appointed psychologist had warned him about such things. “I need to sleep you off,” Jakub tells the spider. “Like a stomachache.”) But soon, we begin to suspect: Perhaps this creature is real?
Here it becomes clear that Kalfar has much larger aims with “Spaceman of Bohemia” than to write a spry, madcap work of speculative fiction. The giant spider has ready access to Jakub’s unconscious, and ransacks it repeatedly, releasing a cascade of defining memories: of Jakub’s falling in love with his wife; of his parents’ deaths when he was 10; of watching his grandparents endure humiliation and hardship to raise him. The spaceman becomes the most far-flung analysand in the solar system.
Many of these memories are inseparable from the history of the Czech Republic, and the book becomes, as much as anything, a rumination on that history, both recent and distant. Among Jakub’s most painful recollections are those of his family’s participation in the brutal workings of the state. (I won’t reveal his father’s specific role, but it’s one of the book’s most involving and satisfyingly realized story lines.)
The desperate desire to become his father’s opposite, we slowly see, is what has propelled Jakub into space. He believed he was the biological carrier of his father’s curse — “the last remnant of Cain’s sperm” — which meant he had no choice, really, but to lead a life of spectacular repentance. A psychoanalyst might say his fate was overdetermined.
Kalfar has an exhilarating flair for imagery. (“What good am I, a thin purse of brittle bones and spoiling meat?” Jakub wonders to himself after his parents die.) He writes boisterously and mordantly, like a philosophy grad student who’s had one too many vodka tonics at the faculty Christmas wingding.
This is generally a good thing, though it can also mean periodic forays into pretentiousness. In raking through the contents of Jakub’s mind, the spider makes a study of human beings more generally — the pain of our individuality comes as quite a shock — and some of its observations about “humanry” can be self-satisfied, grating; the book is just sturdy enough to withstand its most irritating declamations without collapse.
The fate of Jakub’s marriage, the spider, the voyage into space — they all get their moments, but not all of them get their proper due; at the very end, there are philosophy and more soliloquizing where resolutions ought to be. That such speechifying can be forgiven says something about Kalfar’s wild imagination, his ingenuity, his heart.
Endings are just so very hard. Kalfar, if I had to guess, is from the E. L. Doctorow school of writing: You let your characters guide you. (“You never see further than your headlights,” Doctorow once told The Paris Review , “but you can make the whole trip that way.”) The problem is that headlights in deep space don’t really work. Unless the light bounces off something, it simply gets swallowed up in the dark.