Beyond Asia: Book review of Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
Reviewed by Usha K.R
Title: Spaceman of Bohemia
Author: Jaroslav Kalfar
Publisher: Sceptre (an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton), 2017
In our history books, Czechoslovakia in the twentieth century was the hot chestnut of Europe, perennially a bone of contention between its neighbours, and a catalyst for the Second World War. I recall an illustration from my world history text book, a photograph of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, looking triumphant, having won ‘peace for our time’ after signing away part of Czechoslovakia to Germany in the Munich Agreement. (It was cold comfort that the country that had colonised us had messed up elsewhere in the world and even at home in Europe.) A year later, in 1939, the Second World War broke out and what was left of Czechoslovakia was overrun by German troops. When the war ended in 1945, Czechoslovakia became a satellite state of the Soviet Union, part of the Eastern bloc, and the Soviet yoke persisted despite lulls like the Prague Spring in 1968. After several long years – with Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika, and side by side with the dismantlement of the USSR – there were similar movements in Eastern Europe, with countries throwing off the Soviet and Communist yoke. In Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution ushered in democracy in 1989, and expelled Communism; Vaclav Havel, litterateur, humanist, became the president of the country, and in 1993, the Czech and Slovak republics were established as separate entities. Here, the history books stop, suggesting that with the restoration of democracy, countries would ride into the sunset. For us, in the context of a country newly independent from colonial rule, democracy and self-rule seemed to go hand in hand with new ills like corruption, and from our experience, privatisation was not the silver bullet in answer to a controlled economy. The history books seemed to leave us in a vacuum.
It is in this interstice of history that Jaroslav Kalfar sets his novel Spaceman of Bohemia. As his protagonist declares in the opening of the novel, ‘My name is Jakub Prochazka. … My parents wanted a simple life for me, a life of good comradeship with my country and my neighbours, a life of service to a world united in socialism. Then the Iron Curtain tumbled with a dull thud and the bogeyman invaded my country with his consumer love and free markets.’ Beginning with these straightforward opening lines, Kalfar – heir to a long tradition of writers such as Jaroslav Hasek (The Good Soldier Švejk), Bohumil Hrabal, and Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) – explores the predicament of his protagonist, juxtaposing it with the history of the Czech nation. It is a formidable list of forebears, and to Kalfar’s credit, he holds down his place in the line.
The year is 2018 and Jakub Prochazka, tenured professor of astrophysics at the Univerzita Karlova, volunteers on a single-man space mission to collect the cosmic dust from a strange new cloud that has appeared between Venus and Earth, a cloud named Chopra (!) by its discoverers in New Delhi. Four unmanned shuttles have been sent to capture Chopra’s particles but they return empty handed. It is a risky mission but will boost the nation’s pride. As the slick new-gen senator Tuma puts it to Jakub, ‘A nation of kings and discoverers, and yet the child across the ocean confuses us with Chechnya, and reduces us to our great affinity for beer and pornography. … We defeated the Communists decades ago, Jakub. We can’t ride that wave forever.’ Flattered by the personal appeal and intrigued by the opportunity, Jakub agrees, despite the possibility of no return.
Jakub Prochazka is transformed overnight from a nonentity to a celebrity. Media vans lurk outside his apartment building, he is flooded with fan letters, and his picture of his last dinner on Earth with his wife at their favourite Japanese restaurant gets 47,000 likes in the first hour on Facebook. With an adoring nation watching, he lifts off from a potato field in the space shuttle JanHusl1 to spend the next few weeks alone in space, waiting for the right time to put Ferda, the cosmic dust collector, into action. In his lonely, regimented routine, the only connections with Earth he has are the reports he makes to Petr, the mission operator and the conversations he is permitted with his wife, Lenka.
Things are not as simple as they appear. Hero he may be, darling of the media, subject of a (condescending) article in the New York Times which has hitherto ignored his country, but as Jakub remembers, ‘it wasn’t long ago that people had spit on my family’s gate.’ His ‘big bang’ occurs in 1989 in his ancestral village of Streda, the day of the Velvet Revolution, when the pro-Soviet government is toppled and the path is cleared for the freedoms of the West to overrun the country. It’s the day his grandfather chooses to kill the fattened pig on their farm, and his neighbours wait expectantly for their share of the spoils. Their mood turns to unease as Jakub’s parents arrive from Prague, where thousands of protesters have gathered on the streets, and lock themselves indoors. What ten-year old Jakub does not know is that his father is a collaborator, a member of the Communist Party’s much hated secret police, and has been left to his own devices by the Party. ‘To hell with these parasitic, ungrateful fucks,’ the Party leadership declares, washing their hands of the people. ‘Let the imperialists take them straight to hell. ‘
‘In one book, your father is a hero. In another book, he is a monster. The men who don’t have books written about them have it easier,’ Jakub’s grandfather tells the bewildered ten-year old. Under President Havel’s wishy-washy humanist slogan, ‘Love and truth prevail over hate and lies’, the country proceeds on its way to becoming a free market haven. The new democracy brings with it new forms of corruption, of which Senator Tuma is an exemplar. ‘While the old boys wore ill-fitting suits to disguise beer guts, combated balding by wearing bigger eye glasses and blamed their public alcoholism on stress-related illness,’ Jakub observes, ‘Tuma was a dedicated vegetarian, a weight lifter and a skilled rhetorician.’ In private, Senator Tuma relishes blood sausages, and makes Jakub an offer he cannot refuse. ‘Your father was a collaborator, a criminal, a symbol of what haunts the nation to this day. As his son, you are the movement forward, away from the history of our shame… We can sell the country as such, with you on the packaging.’
The ‘newly found apostles of democracy’ have other, more direct ways of dealing with Communist collaborators. A man turns up, whom young Jakub identifies as the Man with the Iron Shoe, claiming that he is a victim of Jakub’s father’s ministrations, and proceeds to hound Jakub and his grandparents out of their ancestral farm, out of their village, and into a tacky apartment with cardboard walls in Prague. ‘The privatisation has been kind to me,’ the Man with the Iron Shoe confesses. ‘I dabble in iron and zinc. Some weapons contracts. I’m even looking into opening a couple of fast food stores downtown.’
Alone in space, in contemplative silence, Jakub finds solace in food, specifically in Nutella, more so as he realises that his beloved wife Lenka is no longer as enthusiastic about communicating with him on their periodic video feeds. Other than food, he finds solace in a stowaway, a giant spider, in all probability a creation of his disoriented mind, which can penetrate his thoughts and with whom he conducts conversations among other things about the nature of human beings.
Even as he loses hope in his life on Earth and in his mission, Jakub plays his part in keeping alive the false fantasy. During his designated video interactions with Earth, a fan sneaks in an unauthorised question, foreshadowing events to come, as it were: ‘Do you think about dying due to mission failure?’ Jakub rises to the occasion. ‘When I think about death,’ he says, ‘I think of sun-covered porch in the mountains. I take a sip of hot rum. I take a bite of cheesecake, and I ask the woman I love to sit on my lap.’
The novel is also an exploration of love, the delicate notes that it traverses, and an ode to the city of Prague as it uncovers a new milestone in its destiny, shrugging off its past in a palimpsest of memories. ‘I don’t recognise this city,’ the young Jakub says, ‘its new, well dressed explorers, its taxicabs and Tommy Hilfiger billboards. I don’t know this free Prague… so many luxuries are now within reach, and I can’t afford any of them.’ In the historic Wenceslas Square, the 19th century statue of Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of the nation, ‘the postcard hero… green and stone-faced on his trusty horse, the animal’s majestic thigh and ass generously caked with pigeon shit’ is surrounded by French teenage tourists who thumb through their phones and catcall to women as they throng the statue’s base. The square is the heart of the revolution – the place where we took our nation back – now a battleground for McDonald’s, KFC, and Subway. ‘The cube bricks that form the road and oblique rooftops, once witness to thronging crowds of revolutionaries, to bullets, to heads cracked by police batons, now provide a historical feel to a shopping experience. Clothing stores, cafes, strip clubs. Promoters stand in front of the shiny entrances and hand out colourful flyers with pictures of girls and happy hour specials.’
As things progress, the action in the novel takes a turn to make good its melancholy promise. Cloud Chopra behaves uncharacteristically; its dust penetrates the spaceship and JanHusl1 starts shutting down. With the sorrowful nation watching, Senator Tuma promises to declare him the nation’s hero, establish a holiday in his name, along with scholarships for young scientists, as Jakub Prochazka floats out in his space suit, holding in his hands his grandfather’s ashes in a cigar box, knowing that his oxygen supply is limited. But there are still historical scores to be settled, the novelist is not done yet. Jakub, left for dead, is rescued by NashaSlava1, the rival Russian spaceship, ‘the grinning chancre of my history’. The rescue turns into an incarceration and though Jakub manages to come back to Earth, and return to Prague, can he step back into the same river, even one as broad and forgiving as the Vltava? This is the question the novel leaves Jakub and the reader with. It is a question that will find resonances elsewhere, ‘global’ as the world has become.
Kalfar engages the reader with his smooth flowing, sinewy prose – there is a pleasing gravitas in the writing – and deft plotting, not allowing the story to flag as he intersperses it with predicaments and personalities from history, ruminations on human nature and love. Given the assurance of the writing, and its confident voice, it comes as a surprise that Spaceman of Bohemia is Jaroslav Kalfar’s first novel. As he grows more sure footed, one hopes that he will find the confidence to dispense with props (like the hallucinatory arachnid) that are not absolutely essential to the story or the plot; this novel would have stood on the author’s realistic story telling alone.
Usha K R writes fiction in English. Her novels are ‘Monkey-man’ (2010/ Penguin India), ‘A Girl and a River’ (2007/Penguin India), ‘The Chosen’ (2003/Penguin India) and ‘Sojourn’ (1998/East West Books). Her novels have been listed for several awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Crossword Award, the Man Asia and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. ‘A Girl and a River’ won the Vodafone Crossword Award, 2007. ‘Monkey-man’ was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012.
Usha K R attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2011.