How unlikely! Yet here we are.
Jakub Procházka is an expert for space dust. When a cloud of mysterious dust settles around Venus and paints the night sky an eerie purple, Jakub becomes the first Czech in space; not only a scientist on an important mission to solve the riddles of the universe, but also a vital symbol for his country of 10 millions, a sign of progress and superiority. But his solo mission also takes Jakub away from his beloved wife Lenka. The distance puts a strain onto their relationship; drifting lonely into the vastness of space, Jakub realizes that maybe he has sacrificed too much. His loneliness is interrupted by the most unlikely of interlocutors: a big, friendly, impossible polite spider alien with a craving for terran hazelnut spread.
„I wish I had the capacity to assist you with your emotional distress, skinny human. I cannot offer you the solace of Nutella, for I have consumed it.“
The spider alien could well be a figment of Jakub's imagination, but real or not, his new friend kindles some memories. Jakub is very literally a child of the revolution, witness to the Velvet Revolution and the end of communism as a 10-year-old. Unfortunately, his father served on the wrong side of history, and Jakub and his grandparents have to pay for his sins. Jakub also remembers the first days of his relationship with Lenka, their young love, their more and more desperate attempts to receive a child, until finally they part ways, with Jakub flying into space.
Kalfař tells Jakub's story alternating between events in space and in the past, spiced with great pathos and philosophical musings about life, the universe, and all the rest. The absurd humour invites comparison to Karel Capek, but also to Kurt Vonnegut, mixing the grotesque with the tragic. Kalfař manages to evoke vivid pictures of rural Czechoslovakia, and is equally visceral when describing the torture committed by Jakub's father.
About halfway through, the story takes a sharp turn and suddenly becomes something else – and when you've finally settled in and found your footing with the change in tone, there's another turn and you find out that the book is in fact something else entirely than you expected in the beginning. It's a bold move to defy reader expectations so completely and results in some people getting lost. I have to admit that I too got lost for a moment and didn't enjoy the second half quite as much as the first. My slight irritation was made up for by the ending, though. And I do think the second half is necessary: too easily, this book could have been just another story using a female character as a catalyst for a straight, white boy's suffering. The second half addresses this point at least somewhat and gives us the perspective of the women who got left behind. And although Jabkub's story can seem quite sad, the book itself is ultimately uplifting: using historic evidence that the Power of the People can actually change the course of history; that, while the means of democracy and justice are flawed and humanity is a self-aware „mess of contradictions“, our desire for companionship and freedom can bring us together and work for good. That's a rather soothing message for these times, and a welcome change to the omnipresent cynicism of grimdark.
Maybe the story is a bit too constructed, the author's hand too visible from time to time. Nonetheless, Spaceman of Bohemia is an excellent debut and will find its place among my favourites of 2018. I'm looking forward to whatever else Kalfař is capable of.
„Alas, we are what we are, and we need the stories, we need the public transportation, the anxiety meds, the television shows by the dozens, the music in bars and restaurants saving us from the terror of silence, the everlasting promise of brown liquor, the bathrooms in national parks, and the political catchphrases we can all shout an stick to our bumpers. We need revolutions. We need anger.“
(It's the second book about sad, lonely boys in space this year that I've really liked; apparently that's now my jam. It's one of several books dealing with sons having to attone for the sins of their fathers – who would have thought this would become the common theme of my reading in 2018. How unlikely. Yet here we are ;) )