Out of all of the debut novels which have been published recently, ‘Spaceman of Bohemia’ by Jaroslav Kalfar has one of the most intriguing and original premises. Set in 2018, it tells the story of Jakub Procházka, a Czech astrophysicist turned astronaut on a solo mission to investigate a dust cloud between Earth and Venus and collect samples for analysis. However, his marriage to Lenka is under further strain as she is left behind on Earth and Jakub has plenty of time on his own to reflect on his family’s past. The appearance of a giant Nutella-loving alien spider called Hanuš who may or may not be a figment of Jakub’s imagination only complicates things further.
‘Spaceman of Bohemia’ contains a unique blend of space travel and recent Czech history, with a particular focus on the Velvet Revolution and the consequences these events have had for Jakub’s family. Most significantly, Jakub’s father had a violent past as a Communist sympathiser who tortured dissidents and after the end of the Cold War, the rest of the family suffered because of his actions. However, there is also plenty of room for humour too. Indeed, the very idea of the Czech Republic sending one of its citizens into space in the near future in order to become a leading player on the world stage is satirical in itself.
The unlikely combination of topics and genres sounds like it shouldn’t work but it actually does, mostly because Kalfar doesn’t overdo any single aspect. Although the novel is much more offbeat in scope and tone compared to most books I read, none of the different elements seemed forced or included just for the sake of it. The confined setting of Jakub’s space probe is outlined in detail but the language used isn’t overly technical. Instead, the story remains focused on past events on Earth and explores big existential questions with light touches of humour. It is about how Jakub, the ultimate underdog, must find a way to accept his public persona as a national hero whilst addressing the issues in his personal life both in the present and the past.
‘Spaceman of Bohemia’ will naturally appeal to those who are fascinated by space travel with a twist and have an appreciation for both realism and the absurd. Many thanks to Sceptre for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.