Blend Bradbury and Lem with Saint-Exupéry and perhaps a little Kafka, and you get this talky, pleasing first novel by Czech immigrant writer Kalfar.
Jakub Procházka—his name, he insists, is “common” and “simple”—is a man of numerous fears, including caterpillars and the possibility of an afterlife, “as in the possibility that life could not be escaped.” An astrophysicist with a beautiful if increasingly estranged wife and a father with a fraught past, Jakub is now pushing the moral equivalent of a giant space broom, collecting cosmic dust for analysis up in the skies on a path to Venus, where the first astronaut from the Czech Republic can stake a claim to space for a nation that the world confuses with Chechnya or, in the words of a powerful technocrat, “reduces us to our great affinity for beer and pornography.” The new world in the sky yields many mysteries, among them an arachnoid spider with whom Jakub, whom the creature calls “skinny human,” has extensive conversations about all manner of things even as events on Earth unfold in ever stranger ways; his wife, Lenka, now has a police tail, and Jakub’s wish to reconcile and produce offspring seems increasingly unlikely. And why does he wish to reproduce? So that, he answers when the creature asks, he reduces the odds of being a nobody, one of many nicely Kafkaesque nods in a book built on sly, decidedly contrarian humor. Whether the Nutella-loving creature is really there or some sort of imagined projection (“A hallucination could not be full of thoughts that had never occurred to me, could it?”) remains something of a mystery, but Jakub’s torments and mostly good-natured if baffled responses to them are the real meat of the story. Blending subtle asides on Czech history, the Cold War, and today’s wobbly democracy, Kalfar’s confection is an inventive, well-paced exercise in speculative fiction.
An entertaining, provocative addition to the spate of literary near-future novels that have lately hit the shelves.