Spaceman Of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar book review

Is Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman Of Bohemia the best book of 2017?

A man being propelled into the unknown is forced to confront himself in Jaroslav Kalfar’s incredible debut novel. Spaceman Of Bohemia blends personal and political history with sci-fi elements to create something that feels both epic and grounded. It’s witty, it’s strange, it’s moving and it’s very, very difficult to put down.

The story begins in 2018, with Czech astronaut Jakub Prochazka hurtling through the Earth’s atmosphere into space to retrieve samples from a mysterious new gas cloud. Alone for weeks, Jakub remembers when his world was turned upside down by the Velvet Revolution, as his Communist informer/torturer father died in an accident shortly before he was due to stand trial. Growing up with his grandparents, Jakub struggles to come to terms with his inherited guilt.

His time in space is made even more complicated when his wife, Lenka, decides to cut off contact, at which point a presence in his spaceship makes its presence known: a curious alien creature, who may or may not be there.

Despite its frequently fantastic scope and sci-fi elements, it’s remarkable how grounded Spaceman Of Bohemia feels, from the farmhouse, where his grandfather butchers animals and combats the locals’ increasingly brazen attempts to drive them out, to the cramped confines of the JanHus1, which seems to have more creature comforts than future-tech (Nutella is beautifully important).

Jakub is very good company. He’s morose, with good reason, but there’s a deadpan sense of humour that roots the bigger moments and helps to prevent the emotionally heavier flashback from becoming overly grim. His interactions with his possibly imaginary, hazelnut-loving alien companion are very funny, and increasingly affecting as the bond between them grows.

In fact, Kalfar achieves an impressive balancing act all through the novel, particularly in the more self-reflective moments, as Jakub remembers the shock of his parents’ death and the raging blend of emotions that came with being confronted with what his father did for a living. One of the novel’s most memorable characters is a man who was tortured by Jakub’s father and has come to make life difficult for his remaining family members, but who admits to not knowing exactly what he wants out of them.

These ideas that events must logically follow each other, that the crimes of the previous generation are inherited and must somehow be paid off, are examined thoughtfully and with great sensitivity. How much does Jakub owe his place in the stars to the fact that he spent his life working desperately hard to claim a different place in the world to the one his father left him with? And was going the right decision in the first place? Did he have the right to leave Lenka behind and expect everything to stay just as it was?

Painting its intimate character study on a large canvas, Kalfar takes us into the past, into the cosmos, but tells a human story that is powerful, funny and surprising. We urge you to read it.