March 24, 2017

"Jakub Prochazka, the Czech hero of Jaroslav Kalfar’s zany first novel, 'Spaceman of Bohemia,' is an astronaut who has left a lot of baggage back on Earth."

NY Times: He is the shining hope of an entire nation, the biggest celebrity in his home country, so excruciatingly aware that his endeavor “will carry the soul of the republic to the stars” that he refuses water before liftoff lest he should inadvertently urinate and “the purity of my mission” become “stained by such an undignified gesture.” By HARI KUNZRU

'The reason the Czech Republic is launching a manned spacecraft is the arrival of a strange comet that has “swept our solar system with a sandstorm of intergalactic cosmic dust.” A cloud, named Chopra by its Indian discoverers, now floats between Earth and Venus, turning the night sky purple. Unmanned probes sent out to take samples have returned mysteriously empty. Likewise a German chimpanzee has returned to Earth with no information save the evidence that survival is possible. The Americans, the Russians and the Chinese show no sign of wishing to risk their citizens, so the Czechs have stepped up, with a rocket named for the Protestant reformer and national hero Jan Hus.

'At many points in the novel, Kalfar sketches key moments in Czech history, and the very premise of a Czech space mission is clearly a satire on the nationalist pretensions of a small post-Communist nation. Financed by local corporations whose branding is placed on his equipment, Jakub is the epitome of the scrappy underdog, grasping for fame by doing something too crazy or dangerous for the major players.

'Back on Earth he has left his wife, Lenka, and as the novel opens it is clear that their marriage is in trouble. Jakub feels guilty that on his last morning on Earth, he refused the breakfast she cooked; now he worries that this “violation of a ritual” is at the root of the “long silences and lack of humor” that have begun to cloud his video chats with her.

'Kalfar’s satire of Czech Communism treads familiar territory (Jakub’s rocket takes off from a “state-owned potato field,” while TV actresses are “replete with the look of strong femininity and fierce dedication to the Party”), which, being retrospective, lacks the urgency that this kind of writing used to have before the Velvet Revolution. But for all the strangeness of outer space, it is the writing about his home village, the place to which he longs to return and perhaps never can, that beats strongest in this wry, melancholy book.'

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