A cloud of cosmic dust appeared just off Venus and settled there, changing the color and tenor of the night sky. It’s a mystery and the world waits to see whether the Russians, Chinese, or the Americans will win the race of discovery. Except, this time a mouse will roar. A small country of only ten million, the bold Czech Republic sends Jakub Procházka, a cosmic dust scientist with no extra-planetary ambitions, into space in a discount shuttle they purchased from the Swiss.
Jaroslav Kalfař’s Spaceman of Bohemia is a hard book to classify. On the surface, it’s a science fiction story about an astronaut from Czechoslovakia who is sent off to explore a mysterious particle cloud near Venus, encounters an alien, and generally has a big science fiction adventure. It is also the story of the Velvet Revolution, which liberated Czechoslovakia and its repercussions for Jakub’s family. His father is about to be tried for his crimes as a member of the secret police when his parents die in a funicular accident. He goes to live with his grandparents who are cursed by an obsessed man seeking revenge for his imprisonment by Jakub’s father. Add to this family saga, a love story, a political parable, and a liberal does of satiric humor and you have a novel that balances on the fine line between brilliance and chaos.
It wobbles. I wobble, too, in trying to think about this book. There are so many portions of the book that are brilliant. It is emotionally engaging. I loved Jakub’s grandfather and there is a scene in that cosmic dust cloud where Jakub releases his ashes that made my heart ache. The scenes with the extraterrestrial are comic and poignant. And of course, extraterrestrials would love Nutella, doesn’t everyone? The story of his childhood is some of the most powerful writing in the book. On the other hand, the whole Russian cosmonaut thing is not for me. It’s hallucinatory and weird and some will love it. I didn’t, but it solves a huge wrinkle in the plot.
The novel has two parts, the trip to the dust cloud with the mechanical disaster and the alien encounter and all this excitement, a very brief intermission, and the rest of the story. The intermission is so clever, telling an alternative story of what happened to the famed heretic for whom the spaceship was named. If we did not realize when he was burned on the Day of the Witches Jakub Procháska is the Jan Hus of the 21st century, the intermission lays it out for us.
There is a lot of art in the structure of Spaceman of Bohemia, art that might be obscured by the comic feints at modern materialism and commercial culture (so much of the JanHus1 is sponsored by some company or another), but the intermission reveals the allegory and makes the rest of the story make sense. It’s a secret story from a secret archive, but it gives a happy ending to the horrors of history as well as hope for the future.
Spaceman of Bohemia will be released on March 7th. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.