About The Author
Jaroslav Kalfar was born and raised in Prague, Czech Republic, and immigrated to the United States at the age of fifteen, speaking little to no English but learning it by watching Cartoon Network. He graduated from University of Central Florida, where he received a Frances R Lefkowitz Scholarship, the Outstanding Fiction Writer award and the Founder's Scholar Award for being the top graduate in the College of Arts and Humanities. He earned his MFA at NYU, where he was a Goldwater Fellow and was one of the three nominees for the new NYU E.L. Doctorow Fellowship Award upon graduating. He is twenty-seven years old.
His debut novel, The Spaceman of Bohemia, now available in paperback, is an extraordinary vision of the endless human capacity to persist - and risk everything - in the name of love and home. Set in the near-distant future, it 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.
Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to Jaroslav about the horror and incomprehensible loneliness of space travel, the relationship between ambition and love and the complexity of the legacy of communism.
Author photo © Grace Ann Leadbeater
Questions & Answers
What was the starting point for your book?
The book began as a short story about an American astronaut receiving a call from his wife asking for a divorce as he is stranded in orbit. I was obsessed with the idea of such an earthly banality put in contrast with the glory of space exploration. And yet it’s not a banality at all to the astronaut, whose strongest link to Earth – love – just broke. But I didn’t want this story to be a novel – I wanted to write my first book about my country, its history. Then the American astronaut became a Czech astronaut, and everything clicked.
In reality how exercised were/are the Czechs with the space race? Funny story – a Czechoslovak citizen was the first citizen from a country other than United States and Soviet Union to go into Space. It was Vladimir Remek, who flew the Soyuz 28 mission for the Soviets in 1978. I hope he will forgive that in the world of Spaceman of Bohemia, history is altered and his mission does not happen.
At what point did you conceive of Hanus? How did you set about creating his alternative universe with its own customs and rituals?
It seemed underwhelming to have Jakub talk to himself the whole time about these big questions of human existence. Hanus became a part of the novel right away – he came to me as a traveller and a philosopher trying to understand what this human business is all about, why we live in contradictions. I wanted Hanus’ tribe to be rid of the complications plaguing human existence – they don’t understand what lies are, they don’t fear something as banal as death. Their society is perfectly communal, they all live for the whole, including their mating rituals. And yet Hanus falls in love with the impracticality of humans.
Does the idea of a one-man mission to space hold any appeal for you? Do you understand how it might have done for Jakub and indeed for today’s astronauts?
I originally found the idea tragically funny because of the trend of underfunding science during hard economic times. Just like there is only one government office employee for two hundred people standing in line, in Spaceman’s world there is a single astronaut when certainly there should be more if only for psychological reasons. I share some of Jakub’s focus on ambition, and so I can relate to his attraction to having the glory of the mission all to himself. And I also do love solitude, perhaps to a fault. But I wouldn’t wish upon myself nor any of the astronauts today the horror and the incomprehensible loneliness of traveling alone, away from Earth and its capacity for life, into the darkness of Space, a never-ending unknown.
Should Lenka have tried harder to express her misgivings at Jakub leaving her? I think that Lenka tried her best – sometimes we want the people who love us to see past themselves and consider our perspective without us having to ask for it. How would I react if a loved one approached me and said, I’m going to Space, and there is the possibility of something going wrong? I’d want them to fulfil their dream, of course, but at the same time I’d want them to stay. The relationship between ambition and love is one of the most complex, messy human concepts I’ve encountered.
There is a very powerful recurring image of torture, totally at odds with the weightlessness of space; does it have a specific origin?
Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated with the iron shoe torture device – what a concept, to take a thing as innocent and common as a shoe, then strap a person into it and cause them unimaginable pain. Of course, we could never accuse totalitarian regimes of lacking imagination when it comes to pain. I saw such a shoe in a museum when I was a child. Rusted, clunky, ugly, as if its appearance was trying to tell the story of the acts it had been used for. It stayed with me.
Do you agree with Tuma that the greatness of a nation is defined by what they show to the world rather than what they do in it?
This becomes very complicated if we look at all nations equally, but of course, Tuma is the leader of a small nation. A nation that didn’t participate in colonialism, was never an occupying force, doesn’t have the power to invade or conquer. It isn’t capable of doing much “to” the world in the terms we usually think about. Smaller, less powerful countries make their fame other way – by showing to the world how to care for the health of all citizens, ensure income equality or perhaps how to explore worlds beyond our own.
Jakub feels he needs to atone for his father’s past as a Communist informer. Is this a legacy still felt and spoken about in the Czech Republic today?
People still very much position themselves this way – did your family collaborate? Did you betray your neighbours and reap rewards in exchange? One of the cheapest and yet still effective methods politicians use during campaign season is to accuse their rivals of collaboration. But as elective amnesia of any population would have it, now there are people who are fetishizing the communist days, how much “easier” and more controlled things were back then. In Spaceman I tried to portray the complexity of the legacy of communism and the importance of remembering, but also the fatigue with such discussion – yes, we were an oppressed nation, yes, we liberated ourselves, now what will we do with our freedom, how do we shape the nation’s future?
Other stories play an important part in your book, whether from the Czech opera Rusalka or the story of church reformer Jan Hus, whose name is lent to the shuttle. Would the success of Jakub’s mission have been a powerful enough new story to overwrite national shame with pride?
I think the mission, if successful, had the symbolic power of giving the nation something new to look forward to, to believe in. After all, space programs have been known to restore trust between government and its people, reigniting the imaginations of citizens, taking the themes of human possibility and exploration beyond the daily worry and grind, be it during the cold war of the past or the failing capitalist order of the present.
What research did you have to do for the book? Which strand was more challenging: Jakub’s – and his nation’s past – or the space mission?
For the purposes of Space exploration, I kept research minimal, only to what I needed to write with authority, as I was concerned that too much research would result in me overwriting about fun Space facts and neglecting the story. I was interested in the banalities of living in Space – brushing one’s teeth, going to the toilet, keeping one’s muscle and bone from deterioration. The history of the Czech Republic was much more natural and comfortable for me, as I’d been listening to it all of my life, gathering witness reports from my family and the people of my country without even realising it since childhood. I would deem Space research more challenging because I was concerned about making a fool of myself, getting something so wrong that Neil deGrasse Tyson would call me on it on Twitter, but ultimately, all research done for the book was an immense pleasure in itself.