Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
Reading the first pages of Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia, I found myself thinking of that old David Bowie song – Space Oddity. It seemed to be following the same recipe – take a man, put him in a spaceship, and then send him alone into the unknown reaches of outer space. But right away this novel moved far beyond the simple limits of a pop song. What at first appeared to be a literary sci-fi adventure soon turned into a complex, multi-layered attempt at a tour de force. I call it an attempt because I’m not sure the author pulled it off.
Kalfar might have tried to do too many things at once. He joined space travel with a love affair with science fiction with Czech politics and history. Sometimes these parts meld together nicely, but too often Jacob Prochazka – the character through whom we view the story – seems to be drifting through wide plotless spaces while the author searches for ways to connect the dots. It becomes more of an intriguing cerebral meander rather than an action-packed page-turner, sprinkled with backstory and memories to help us understand the spaceman’s schizophrenic state of mind. Along the way, we learn of Jacob’s troubled childhood and relationship to his parents, especially his father, and to his grandparents. All of these people have suffered, in one way or another, from the tyranny of the Soviet Union’s power over their country. Jacob is haunted by this past, by a commiserative space alien, and by a devious vengeful character whose life’s mission is to make Jacob’s own life a living hell for the crimes his father committed during the Soviet occupation. A lot is going on in this book, a lot of trajectories. The complex and stormy relationship between Jacob and his wife could have been isolated and made into a novel by itself.
This book might have only rated three stars if not for the audacity of its author. Attempting something with such scope in a debut is impressive, no matter how successful, and so the novel deserves a bump up to a four star rating. Kalfar is a promising writer, and his first novel is definitely worth reading. I’m curious to see what he’ll do next.