Jakub Procházka, a citizen of the Czech Republic in the very near future, loves nothing more than silence and solitude. So, despite his cozy position as a professor of astrophysics and a tranquil domestic life with his wife Lenka, he's oddly relieved to be chosen as the first Czech to travel to space, where the most profound silence and solitude abound. Not that his mission is a calming one: The year is 2018, and a strange comet has left a vast cloud of space dust between Earth and Venus. The night sky has turned from black to perpetually purple. Now this eerie cloud, dubbed Chopra by Indian astronomers, has begun to devour itself. After five failed international space missions to investigate Chopra (including one captained by a chimpanzee) the Czech Republic has stepped up and offered its humble services. Launched from a potato field outside Prague, Jakub's spacecraft, JanHus1, sets out on an eight-month trek to plumb the mystery of Chopra.
The premise of Spaceman of Bohemia, the debut novel by Czech-American author Jaroslav Kalfar, doesn't skimp on hooks. But there's far more to it than just a quirky, imaginative, sci-fi setup. The story begins with Jakub already in space, rocketing toward Chopra and becoming accustomed to his new hermetic existence. Kalfar's use of science fiction is not rigorous: It's a thing of silliness and mild satire, of corporate sponsors named SuperZub and tubes of astronaut spaghetti. By the same token, Kalfar ventilates what might an otherwise angst-ridden story with bursts of absurdity. Like when a grotesque, alien spider—which, in an unsettling twist, possesses a sensuous human mouth—appears onboard the ship and becomes Jakub's companion, a mix of sidekick, therapist, and existential sounding board. The question of whether it's an actual alien or a figment of Jakub's feverish loneliness is playfully undercut by numerous dreamy flashbacks that reveal a world bordering on magic realism: His rural childhood during the real-life Velvet Revolution—the fall of the Iron Curtain in what was then Czechoslovakia and his tenure as an academic later in life, when he becomes an expert in the hilariously specialized field of cosmic dust.
The closer Jakub's surreal trek draws him to Chopra and its mysteries, the deeper he probes his own psyche. His ship becomes an echo chamber for his past regrets, sexual escapades, and memories of his parents and grandparents, who embody the clashes of ideology that came to a head during the Velvet Revolution. But his most poignant rumination concerns his wife Lenka, and the way their long-distance love affair has begun to cool and decay once they're no longer able to communicate: "The emptiness of space could not match the despair I felt when her laughter gave way to static silences." The book, however, is far from claustrophobic; Jakub's identity and tribulations are tethered to those of his homeland, and that rich history of political turmoil and cultural upheaval serves as a backdrop. A hero of his people since being chosen for this mission, Jakub feels both proud of and trapped by his status as a national symbol, even as he ponders the Czech Republic's rocky transition from communism to capitalism. The plot's primary mystery unfolds beautifully as well; the secret of Chopra, as wondrous as it is, segues into another, more personal one: Who exactly chose Jakub to go into space—and why?
Spaceman of Bohemia gets heavy—but the story, like its protagonist, flies along weightlessly. A book like this lives and dies on the strength of its first-person voice, and in that regard, Kalfar triumphs. Jakub may be self-absorbed, but he's also charming, funny, and endearingly sympathetic. The reader is, in essence, cooped up in his spaceship with him, and it speaks to Kalfar's deftness that Jakub is never less than charismatic and engaging, even when wallowing in the least admirable dimensions of his own mind. Spaceman of Bohemia turns the lonely-spaceman cliché on its head; Jakub isn't driven to madness by his tenure in space, exactly, but toward a lucid state of super-sanity, with all the pain and poignancy that comes with it. Granted, Spaceman's case, the line between madness and sanity can be as nebulous as a strange cloud between Venus and Earth.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.