Rebeea Saleem reviews Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut novel, a story packed with a balance of solitude and introspection as well as adventure and determination.
This dynamic, punchy, tour de force debut has an unusual premise – a mysterious intergalactic sandstorm of purple cosmic dust named Chopra has entered our solar system. Numerous unmanned shuttles have been sent into space to carry Chopra’s samples back to earth to no avail. Jakub, a Czech astrophysicist is about to embark on what seems to be a one-way trip to space on this daring endeavour.
This space mission is the Czech Republic’s shot at leaving an indelible mark in global history. It is their chance to erase the taint of communism from their collective past. They would beat the superpowers in the space race by undertaking the risk to send Jakub – an astrophysicist whose speciality in cosmic dust makes him the perfect candidate for this job – on this dangerous mission .
This would be their crowning glory, the thing they’ll be known for in history textbooks. Jakub has a vested interest in in this mission, as we find out soon enough.
As Jakub sets off into the void, the narrative turns increasingly personal. Rather than boring us with scientific terminologies and space-talk, it focuses on the interiority of a man who is as isolated as no one on earth can be. The narration style is largely stream-of-consciousness and Kalfar has a very discerning approach to writing which is at once pensive yet very engaging.
Humans, by nature, fear solitude. They like surrounding themselves with anything and everything, be it people or possessions, anything to blanket our resounding solitary existence. In space, however, one can’t rely on these crutches. One is forced to confront suppressed fears, demons and quite literally, yourself.
Jakub begins to doubt his sanity when he spots a gigantic talking spider, Hanus. He tries to dismiss him as a figment of his contact-starved brain but pretty soon, he is made to acknowledge his presence. Jakub finds himself questioning how Hanus, whose existence defies logic, can exist near a cloud which is quantifiable and can be put under a microscope. How can these two diametrically opposite phenomenon co-exist? To the pragmatic mind of a man of science, this question is greatly perturbing and raises issues about divinity and the presence of a higher power.
His tumultuous past is gradually revealed to us which puts his eagerness to be a part of this risky endeavour into perspective. His father was a Soviet Union pawn after his country came under Communist rule. His deplorable actions meant that Jakub and other members of his family were denigrated and discriminated against, even long after his death. As an adult, Jakub is still scarred from his past and the looming shadow of communism which is his father’s legacy. He thinks he has successfully outrun his past by building a life with a satisfying career and a happy marriage; but we all only see what we want to see. He later realises just how much his past strained his marriage after his wife, Lenka, refuses to talk to him while he is on the mission.
Spaceman of Bohemia sets forth thought-provoking points about philosophical and pragmatic issues. Our protagonist’s goal in life is to study particles of the universe to unravel the small clues of the very origin of Everything. But what really drives someone to such a pursuit? Is it an attempt to project our own anxieties, unanswered questions undergoing the guise of scientific enquiry? This book astutely considers such existential questions without being pedantic.
The writer, through the widely disparate characters, ponders that no matter which path in life we choose to walk, does the end justify the means? One of the characters wryly observes how he has sacrificed his life to academic grind and “I’ve made myself unhappy most of my life so a professor could write my name on the blackboard and punish student for not memorising it.” Passages like this piercingly shines a light on the meaningless motives behind most of our worldly pursuits.
This impeccable novel has writing which is deftly sparse, making it all the more effective. Because of the extremely lucid and ruminative prose the reader is plunged into the center scene. The narration is hallucinatory yet at the same time, keenly self-aware. Kalfar intersperses philosophical enquiry with playful observations which has shades of Kafka and Murakami in terms of how the line between imagination and reality starts to blur as our spaceman starts to unravel.
Spaceman of Bohemia is a spectacular work of fiction which intelligently probes the disconnect between our emotional and rational selves. It also makes one contemplate the enigmatic abyss that is space which has memorised and inspired people since hundred of years. Essentially, this books considers how humans will go to any lengths to explore other worlds yet be so ignorant of the multitudes which they contain within them.
Spaceman of Bohemia was published by Sceptre on the 9th of March.