Book Review - Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

The Life of Pi meets The Martian in dazzling literary debut spanning duplicitous love, political intrigue, a historical riddle and a cloud of spacedust over Venus.

'Spaceman of Bohemia is unforgettable: a work of breathtaking scope and heart, and a reflection of humanity that's raw and strange and profound and true’

Lisa McInerney, Baileys-Prize-winning author of The Glorious Heresies

Set in the near-distant future, Spaceman follows a Czech astronaut as he launches into space to investigate a mysterious dust cloud covering Venus, a suicide mission sponsored by a proud nation. Suddenly a world celebrity, Jakub's marriage starts to fail as the weeks go by, and his sanity comes into question. After his mission is derailed he must make a violent decision that will force him to come to terms with his family's dark political past.

An extraordinary vision of the endless human capacity to persist-and risk everything-in the name of love and home, by a startlingly talented young debut novelist.

I finished Spaceman of Bohemia a few days ago and I'm still struggling to find the right words to describe this extraordinary book. It's science fiction but it's also historical fiction, literary fiction and more simply, a story of a young man trying to come to terms with his past.
The young man in question is Jakub Procházka and the near future of spring 2018 he becomes the Czech Republic's first astronaut when his space shuttle, the JanHusl1 is launched from a state owned potato field. His mission is to capture particles from the mysterious Chopra cloud that has formed between the Earth and Venus, bathing 'Earth’s nights in purple zodiacal light, altering the sky we had known since the birth of man.' after a previously undiscovered comet entered the Milky Way. On the long solo mission Jakub has little else to do but think about his life, his relationship with his father, his grandparents and his wife, Lenka. It soon becomes clear that his relationship with his wife is under strain and the distance between them is more than just the miles. However, it transpires that Jakub isn't as isolated as he thought - he's sharing the JanHusl1 with a giant arachnid alien with thirty-four eyes and rather disturbingly, red human lips and the yellow teeth of a smoker. The spider-alien calls Jakub, 'Skinny human' and becomes the conduit to our finding out more about Jakub's life. This for me is actually the crux of the novel, while I enjoyed the science fiction it's the story behind it, the reasons for Jakub leaving Earth on a potentially fatal mission that makes the book so enjoyable. Kalfař has managed to sublimely blend the often absurd with a riveting social history. As the Velvet Revolution brings about the end of Communism, the teenage Jakub is forced to confront uncomfortable truths about his father's role in the regime. His simple rural life with his grandparents is evocatively told and a striking juxtaposition with his life in deep space. We gradually learn of the events that eventually lead him from a life where slaughtering the pig is a village highlight to conversing with a Nutella loving giant spider aboard the JanHusl1. He's also forced to examine his relationship with his wife and learns that his memories may not tell the whole story.  Ultimately the Spaceman of Bohemia is about the universal truths; love, forgiveness, betrayal, acceptance and understanding. It may be a book set in the future but by also looking back at the past we are reminded of humanity's perpetual ability to persist despite our repeated failings. I suspect some people may be put off by the strangeness of the plot. I can only urge you to put your misgivings aside. This is a book that manages to be both playful and profound, it exposes both the brutal Communist regime and the often ridiculous commodification of daily life, it is satire and it is sentimental. Jaroslav Kalfař's debut is unforgettable; weird, funny, sad, touching and a melting pot of themes that combine to create a truly unique work of fiction.
Many thanks to the author and publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for this review.

Spaceman of Bohemia will be published in the UK by Sceptre Books on 9th March 2017