Jakub Procházka, the protagonist of Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut novel, Spaceman of Bohemia, is no John Glenn or Yuri Gagarin. He’s a reluctant astronaut, a professor of astrophysics who is also a touch afraid of his own shadow, worried that a caterpillar might land on him and that the unhappiness of his marriage might be a thing as eternal as an inescapable afterlife. For his sins, he’s rocketed into space, the first astronaut, or perhaps cosmonaut, from the tiny Czech Republic, a place largely known to the world, as one technocrat laments, for “our great affinity for beer and pornography.”
Down on earth, Jakub’s wife has attracted the attention of the police, for while the Czech Republic may no longer be under communist rule, the police are with us always. What could she be up to? As for Jakub, he’s got worries of his own up in the darkness of space, for he’s encountered a spiderlike alien who calls him “skinny human” while savoring the earthly delights of Nutella. Does the creature, whom Jakub dubs Hanuš, really exist, or is he a product of Jakub’s fevered imagination? That’s the question, and that’s the rub.
Jakub didn’t start life as a Czech. Kalfar tells Kirkus Reviews that in his first incarnation, he was an American astronaut whose wife waits until he’s far out into space before asking him for a divorce. “I was interested in juxtaposing the banality of something so earthly and common as divorce with the glory and mystery of space exploration,” he says, speaking from his home in Brooklyn, having arrived in the United States from Prague when he was 15.
He was, he admits, without proper documentation for some of his American years and spent many a nervous day “waiting for immigration to come and collect me.” Still, having arrived speaking only a few words of English, he worked his way through high school, college, and graduate school, mastering the language to the point where he wrote his novel in the idiom of his new country. “Sometimes I manage to write a sentence that sounds like one of those botched Google Translate results,” he says, but that was no hindrance in writing a book that, after all, is very much in the stranger-in-a-strange-land vein.
To be a Czech writer is to work under the very long shadow of Franz Kafka, and Kalfar cheerily admits the lineage. “I do always have Franz K. on the brain,” he says. “After all, he gave us the language for capturing the modern human’s anxiety, and he was a comedic genius on top of being a fellow Prague dweller.” But as his novel took shape and began to fall in a realm somewhere between literary fiction and speculative or science fiction, he found inspiration in other writers, from Gabriel García Márquez to Milan Kundera—and, pointedly, the great Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, whose Behemoth, the walking black cat of The Master and Margarita, “is a far closer influence for Hanuš than Kafka’s insect.”
Kalfar recently returned to the Czech Republic after many years away, and he forged new and renewed connections with family and friends who, he says, “became new people in my absence.” He is now sketching out a novel that, like Spaceman, addresses the liminality of the alien. Meanwhile, having written his first science-fiction story at the age of six, he revels in taking a place in what he thinks of as a golden age for readers and writers. “Anyone who says that literature is in some kind of rut or decline these days is simply not reading what’s out there,” he says. Out there, of course, to include deep space, where one might find, bantering and pondering, a certain spiderlike creature and a certain Czech.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.