By Chet Yarbrough
Spaceman of Bohemia
By: Jaroslav Kalfar
Narrated by Jot Davies
“Spaceman of Bohemia” is partly a “stream of consciousness” tale. Just as a reader/listener thinks the story is complete, a new story begins with a similar thematic destination. In an implausible space journey to a galactic dust cloud and a miraculous rescue, a Bohemian astronaut is saved by a Russian spaceship. The spaceman of Bohemia’s spaceship is compromised by dust from the cosmic cloud he is inspecting.
The Russian spaceship comes out of nowhere and is part of a top-secret program that explores the universe without knowledge of the rest of the world. The spaceman’s story begins with a young boy in communist Czechoslovakia just before the 1968 Prague Spring and Czechoslovakia’s democratization in 1989.
Jakub is the teller of this tale. In recounting his life, Jakub offers a history of what life is like for families that supported a repressive communist regime before the Prague spring movement.
Jakub’s father is employed by the secret police who torture dissidents at the direction of the communist party. One of those dissidents is tortured by Jakub’s father. After the communist party is rejected by the Czechs, this particular tortured dissident returns to seek revenge on Jakub’s family.
As a real-life example of dissident torture in Czechoslovakia, a Slovak priest dies from torture and radiation poisoning from forced labor during the communist era. He is beatified by the church after his death.
After Jakub’s father dies, he is raised by his grandparents. However, they are evicted from their home that Jakub’s grandfather had built. The eviction occurs because of political influence used by the dissident who had been tortured by Jakub’s deceased father.
Jakub becomes a Czech astrophysicist. As a scientist, he discovers a new life form in cosmic dust. Because of that discovery, he is called upon by his government to become an astronaut to make a trip to analyze a distant cosmic dust cloud. The true reason the Czech government calls for Jakub to become an astronaut is revealed at the end of the story. It is the influence of the tortured dissident.
Jakub’s ego, patriotism, and the added weight of the Czech republic’s storied history of science (referring to the likes of Bolzano, Purkinje, Wichterle, Heyrosky, etc. and oddly, Nikola Tesla who was a Serbian) entice Jakub to take the risky space journey.
The journey to the cosmic cloud takes several months. As the journey toward the cloud continues, Jakub meets, at least metaphorically, an alien that has the general form of an arachnid, but with 13 eyes.
The arachnid has lived for centuries and is able to communicate directly with Jakub. The arachnid calls Jakub “skinny human”. The arachnid can read Jakub’s mind which suggests it is a figment of Jacob’s imagination. That idea takes a listener into a state of suspended disbelief that becomes more surrealistic as the story progresses.
As the spaceship reaches the cosmic cloud, it becomes disabled by dust particles that penetrate the life support system of Jacob’s vessel.
As the “Spaceman…” nears death, a Russian spaceship rescues Jakub. The approaching spaceship is a part of a secret Russian science program that has explored the universe for many years.
Everyone in Czechoslovakia presumes Jakub is dead. The Russian’s plan is to keep their rescue of Jakub secret. As they near earth, Jacob impresses one of the cosmonauts (who incidentally has lost his mind) and helps him take over the Russian spaceship. It crashes into the ocean. Jacob escapes and returns to his home country.
Those are the general details of the story, but its appeal is in the author’s skillful use of words and his characterization of human relationship and fragility. As the author explores human relationships, he exploits beliefs in authoritarian, democratic, communist, and capitalist government’ deficiencies.
Jakub marries a free-spirted artist, a woman whom he loves. She also loves him but resents his self-centeredness.
Jakub chooses to take this dangerous journey without considering his wife’s opinion. He treats her as a non-person; not worthy of consideration when deciding something that deeply affects both their lives. She decides to leave Jacob just as he left her, without explanation. Jakub is only part way through his journey to the cosmic cloud when she leaves. She chooses not to explain anything to Jakub in their weekly contacts while he is in space. She just leaves.
Jakub’s wife works with a psychiatrist that helps her understand the decision she makes to leave her husband.
The meetings are transcribed, and Jakub is given a copy of the transcript when he returns to earth. He realizes the mistake he has made and hopes to reenter the relationship he has lost. When he sees his wife, he realizes there is no chance for reconciliation because of the past. He recognizes his failure as an equal partner to a woman of substance.
Personal relationship is the beginning and end of all that matters in life. Kalfar tells a story of human fragility. Life is not government. Life is not politics. Life is not economics.