Sunday, May 7, 2017

The First Czech in Space

Jaroslave Kalfar, Spaceman of Bohemia

Back in the aughts--they're looking pretty good these days--I thought it might be a good idea if I were to find a literary agent to represent my "work"--collections of short stories, several novels and novellas, a memoir, writings on history. All of it drivel, but still, it appeared from the acknowledgments pages of the books I read, no matter how bad, that every scribbler had an agent, "who first believed in my work," and, more to the point, sold it to a New York publisher for lots of money. One heard stories of fine writers who went it alone, but such writers were exceptional. An agent, I thought, would do what I could never do, namely get some editor to read what I wrote, a view as naive as, say, the view that hard work leads to success. I labored over proposals and then began the process of looking up agents, first in New York, then in increasingly smaller cities, hoping to make the kind of magical connection that David Foster Wallace made with Bonnie Nadell. Every day for six months I mailed or emailed submissions, query letters, synopses. Mostly I head nothing; once in a great while I received a form rejection via email, usually along the lines of..."we receive far too more proposals..." "not of interest at the present time (suggesting, falsely, there would be such a time)"..."not marketable." What a waste of time!

This unhappy memory occurred to me as I finished Spaceman of Bohemia.  I was imagining the proposal that Kalfar might have written to countless Big Apple literary hustlers to describe his extraordinary and oddball novel:

Dear Agent:

My novel tells the story of a skinny Czech astrophysicist, son of a Communist-era torturer, who is launched into space in order to determine the chemical composition of a glowing cloud of space dust floating in proximity to the orbit of Venus...his spacecraft is infiltrated (not sure how) by a giant alien spider with red lips and thirty-five mouths who speaks Czech and every other human language, reads minds, and belongs to a tribe as old as the universe. The spider converses with the Skinny Human about love, death, and the origins of the world. They die, sort of, and come back to life. They float, untethered, through the cosmos, chatting (telepathically) while eating Nutella. One of them is rescued by a Russian space ship that happens to be in the vicinity. The Russian ship crash lands in a lake.....This isn't, by the way, a science fiction novel. Are you interested? 

A long shot, right? But mostly Kalfar pulls it off, and you have to hand it to his agent and to Little, Brown for taking a chance on such an odd duck of a novel. The first half of the book in particular is full of engaging details--life in space, life under communism, life with a spider-alien. Kalfar subtly invokes various space-travel parables and I kept thinking of Jules Verne and Tom Swift as I read about the routines and hazards of long-term weightlessness. There's also a little of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in Spaceman--philosophical rambles on the subjects of fear, love, death, the mystery of being, and, of course, under the circumstances, God. Kalfar aims high, and mostly hits the mark. I couldn't get interested in the love story since Lenka, the earthbound wife, remains an idealized shadow--mysterious to the point of invisibility. But I loved the spider, and the whole notion of being utterly alone--so far beyond human concerns that one develops at secondhand the kind of thoughtful detachment and feeling of insignificance that I still get whenever I look through a telescope. My enjoyment of the vicarious sensation of solitude worried me a little: reading through long soliloquies on space and time--the bloody incredible distances!--I grew dreamy and imagined myself floating, likewise untethered, above it all. A sign of the times.

The earthbound sections in the last third of the novel felt a little contrived to me, as if Kalfar himself lost interest once he had to return his imagination to the mundane facts of life. But in the end I felt as if he had achieved something stunning: Kalfar's Spaceman of Bohemia reminds us of the extent to which we make up our own world and then do our best to live in it without becoming too lonely or too crazy. It's the Robinson Crusoe problem done up in post-modern guise--what passes as a habitable world, and how does any individual communicate the slippery reality of that world to another (alien) mind? Language isn't enough any longer; we've lost our faith in words. Admitting this is difficult for a novelist, but Kalfar finds a solution--his alien spider, a Being in direct contact with deeper truths, a sci-fi Friday, clears up all the mysteries, or at least translates the spaceman's incoherent yearnings into something resembling meaning.

                                                      Kalfar with astronaut interviewer

George Ovitt, written on May Day, 2017

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