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Jaroslav Kalfar: Spacemen of Bohemia
Our hero/narrator is Jakub Procházka and, as we learn at the beginning and from the title, he is to be the first Czech astronaut. As we follow why he became an astronaut and the details of his journey, we also learn about his background. A key day in his childhood was the day of The Killing. On that day, his father slaughtered a pig and young Jakub watched. However, it was also the day of the Velvet Revolution, when communism was overthrown in Czechoslovakia. This was significant for the Procházka family as Jakub’s father worked as a secret policeman, making sure that anti-imperialism and the Soviet Union thrived. His job involved arresting people for relatively innocent offences but it also involved torturing suspects.
After the Revolution, the father was arrested. Before being brought to trial, he managed to go on holiday in Austria. The cable on their cable car snapped and both of Jakub’s parents were killed. He was brought up by his grandparents. He went on to study science and eventually made a major discovery on particles in the rings of Saturn. As a result, he was made an assistant professor of astrophysics at the Univerzita Karlova. His father’s misdeeds will come back to haunt him later and, indeed, will play a key role in this novel.
In 2018, things were not going well in the Czech Republic, with allegations of corruption against the ruling coalition. However, Senator Tůma has other ideas. He wants to make the Czech Republic great. A large purple cloud had been formed between Venus and Earth and had been named Chopra by the Indians who first discovered it. (Could Kalfar have been influenced by The Purple Cloud by M P Shiel?). It did not seem to be doing any harm but it changed the light to a purple colour. Four unnamed missions had been sent to the cloud but they obtained no useful data. The Germans then sent Gregor the chimpanzee. He survived. Was someone going to send a man up there? Senator Tůma decided that the country to do that was the Czech Republic and who better to pilot the craft than an expert on extraterrestrial particles, Jakub Procházka?
The craft was bought from the Swiss, an unfinished one that they no longer needed. Finance was obtained by sponsorship deals with Czech firms. This did not always work out as, for example, the internal cameras gradually failed but Jakub did not care, as it allowed him to masturbate in peace. Jakub was married to Lenka but she seemed to accept his absence for eight months. Senator Tůma, however, was very enthusiastic.
A nation of kings and discoverers, yet the child across the ocean still confuses us with Chechnya, or reduces us to our great affinity for beer and pornography. In a few months, the child will know that we are the only ones with the stones to study the most incredible scientific phenomenon of this century.
However, initially, it does not work out very well. He had been allocated a therapist while in training, who had warned Jakub that he might have hallucinations. Jakub had been given a strict regime – exercise, video interviews and so on. He soon cuts back on the exercise, is reluctant to do the video interviews and has sexual fantasies about Lenka. They had communicated by videophone – she had even stripped for him – but, one day, when they were meant to talk, she was not there. It turned out that she had come but then said that she could not do this any more and walked away.
The other problem was Hanuš. Hanuš was an eight-legged thirty-four eyed extraterrestrial being who suddenly appears in JanHus 1 (the name of the spacecraft). Was he a hallucination? The test was whether, when touched, Jan could feel anything and, indeed, he did, so Jakub assumes that he is real. Hanuš wants to learn more about Earth and what he calls humanry and loves Nutella. Where he comes from, there are no names so Jakub christens him Hanuš, after the legendary constructor of the Prague Astronomical Clock. He is good company for Jakub.
However, as they approach the cloud, things start to go wrong. The purple particles get into the craft and cause damage. Hanuš and Jakub have to exit the craft. Back in the Czech Republic, they were saying their farewells to Jakub.
Yes, this is to some degree science fiction novel but it is also a lot more. It is about relationships and, in particular, about not taking one’s partner for granted. It is about corruption in politics and about how those in power abuse those not in power. As it is a good Czech novel, it is also, of course, about how a Czech outwits the Russians. It is about solitude and how we do and do not deal with it. It is about small nations, how they perceive themselves and how others perceive them. It mocks Czech pretensions, corporate sponsorship and politics in general. It is full of little jokes, such as France leaving the EU and the Czech president being named Vančura, possibly after the great Czech writer Vladislav Vančura. However, above all, it is about one of the key themes of literature: finding out who we are and where we belong.
Kalfar has written a thoroughly original novel which may seem science fiction but is about other lots of other things as well. It is well written, covers a variety of interesting themes, is witty and lively and tells a very clever story. An excellent first novel.
First published by Little, Brown in 2017