New Routes in Fiction
A talk with Jaroslav Kalfar
Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut, Spaceman of Bohemia, starts by tracing Jakub Procházka’s space flight to Chopra, a cosmic dust cloud of which he, as the Czech Republic’s fictional first astronaut, is meant to return to earth with samples. It’s 2018; France has recently parted ways with the EU, and Jakub’s flight, an emblem of the kind of capitalism that has emerged in the wake of Soviet communism, is sponsored by consumer electronics companies and manufacturers of dental hygiene products. This is a funny novel, a satire questioning the country the Czech Republic has become, but it does so from love, its wary eye always on the American and Western-European sources of the Republic’s kind of capitalism.
But it’s also a novel that incorporates sadness as great in size as it is individual in scale. This is the sadness of Central European history, and thus of winners and losers switching roles in a moment. Jakub, a child of the Velvet Revolutions, returns repeatedly to 1989, to his grandparents’ village and his disgraced and now deceased father, a powerful member of the secret police. The book’s tonal complexity is best illustrated by Kalfar’s wildest creation: Hanu, a space alien who, between famished handfuls of the Nutella he finds aboard Jakub’s spacecraft, helps our hero process his pain—accumulated grief and lost love—while Jakub himself shows the wise spider, who at first seems so stoic, how to face down mortality.
In this exchange lies the novel’s emotional core: how to live with the disappointments wrought by love and history, death and politics, in a way that accepts, even affirms them as the very stuff out of which life is stitched? On top of his comic eye and charming prose, it’s his unique view of this struggle—to become a less flawed animal by admitting that the unwanted, the rejected and repressed lie at the very core of our lives—that makes Kalfar’s first novel so remarkable.
I interviewed Kalfar at a bar in Brooklyn. Please note that the following interview “contains spoilers.”
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): So where did the spark for this book come from?
Jaroslav Kalfar: It was initially a short story. I started writing it right before I came to New York. It was about an American spaceman, astronaut, stranded in orbit while his wife filed for divorce. Short, funny story. While I was in Jonathan Foer’s class, he asked me why I wasn’t writing about the Czech Republic. I said I wanted to. That’s what I wanted to do most. And he said, ‘Well, the astronaut should be Czech.’ That was when it all clicked.
Rail: Was it in the first person initially? Did it have a similar voice?
Kalfar: Well, not really. It was more of a caricature of an American astronaut, handsome—
Rail: And the transition from American to Czech added depth?
Kalfar: Sort of. I began to care about the character. Went from a caricature to a man who had real issues.
Rail: Was that due to lengthening the piece or changing his nationality?
Kalfar: It was because I changed him to something that was close to me and that I really wanted to write about a lot.
Rail: While you were working on the first draft, how did you handle the narrative distance you would take from this narrator? How did you handle seeing yourself in the character as opposed to his previous incarnation? Was it ever troublesome to you? Should I identify, not identify, etc.? Was that ever a tightrope walk you had to do?
Kalfar: When it comes to Jakub the main character, it was never that difficult. The author will always share some obsessions or fears, but when it came to the difficulties it was mostly with the grandfather character, who was the only link that I make from the book to my personal life; he was modeled after my own grandfather. On a larger level, I wanted this book to be a love letter to the Czech Republic, but I wanted to look at hang-ups that come from our history, and what kind of country we aspire to be in spite of those hang-ups. It was hard at times to decide, ‘Am I being too harsh on my country? Or am I not being harsh enough?’ Where to go with the satire.
Rail: ‘Mission sponsor.’ You play that note just enough times and then put it aside for a hundred pages and then bring the joke back. So the kind of tightrope walk you were doing was more—how best to express your feeling for your home. Being true to it, not totally one thing, earnest, satirical, etc.
Kalfar: And when your expected audience is the American audience—and America doesn’t have an extensive deep relationship with the Czech Republic—it also felt like I’m talking about my country to a readership that is not necessarily familiar with it. So how do I talk about it.
Rail: I think one of the things the book does best, one of its central components, is that it switches between a now and then, a past and present. Intuitively I wouldn’t think it would be seamless, the way you switch between the Czech Republic at the fall of the Soviet Union and the present tense of the Czech Republic in 2018, but it’s a great way to create a pause, a suspended moment—a thrill. Was that a challenge? How did you deal with the structure of that so it felt organic? For instance, when Jakub is suspended in this near-death state in Chopra, and we hurtle back into the past and the moment “freezes.” And Hanu and Jakub sort of merge consciousnesses. You pause the present and retreat to the past.
Kalfar: One of the biggest challenges of the book for sure. When I was thinking about the initiation of the big bang, which is what they [the protagonist and his companion, Hanu] go through, I wanted to see what the most significant moment was in their lives—in Jakub’s life and in Hanu’s life. It was especially hard because the reader is never sure whether Hanu is real or not. So there is doubly this question, ‘How do I introduce the background of this character who may or may not exist?’ But with Jakub it was easier because I had gotten to know Lenka, his wife, by then, so it was easier to bring her in while they were suspended in the big bang [Chopra, a pivotal event in the book]. There was a lot of debate with my editor about that scene. That was the scene that took the most trouble to get right.
Rail: Because of like, how do you get the reader to invest or not in a character that may be a figment? The book is playing with sci-fi without playing by the sci-fi rulebook. In the sense that it would’ve felt out of place if we had, for instance, gone to Hanu’s planet for some time and explored this other form of life. The book is more about madness. I was also wondering about the beginning. Jakub is treated so comically at the beginning. It’s a subtle process. It becomes less funny as the narrative goes on—not in a bad way, of course. Was that a natural development in his voice?
Kalfar: It really was, yes. The beginning really is as satirical as the book gets. It’s the Czech Republic, a country of ten million that has just become capitalist a little bit ago, all of a sudden they have a space program and they have sent a man into space and he has agreed to this insanity, which will most likely kill him. The Czechs have this tendency to react to the most dire circumstances with humor. So it felt important to start the book humorously. Not only because it made sense for the nation and the character, but it seemed like the reader would be willing to stick around for the conceit at the beginning to get to the stuff that happens later. The more far away he gets from his home, the more dire it gets, and the more serious he becomes as a character.
Rail: It’s hard to write a book about this and not learn a lot about how you feel about your home—maybe things you didn’t know before. Do you find that to be true, that there are things about the Czech Republic but hadn’t addressed in your conscious life?
Kalfar: That was one of the biggest reasons that led me to write this book. There were things I wanted to talk about, with my American friends, about my country, and it’s difficult—friends who care about me, about where I’m from and what I’m like because of where I come from, it’s hard to care about a place so far away, a place you don’t hear about that much in the news, that’s not significant with respect to anything besides the Velvet Revolution hat happened in 1989. This was a way for me to talk about the Czech Republic as it was and as it is right now to international readers who might otherwise not be interested in reading about it.
Rail: There’s a sharp political edge to the book. You don’t pull any punches when it comes to the Communists. Same with the ridiculous post-1989 capitalist cronyism. There’s a lot of contemporary EU politics in the book as well. There’s a line in the book about France leaving the EU in 2018. Is that on your mind when you’re writing the book? The EU? What role does the Czech Republic play in the EU?
Kalfar: I did an interview today, my first Czech interview. They asked me the same question. I think we had a chance to play a significant role in preserving and improving it. Obviously the EU has a lot of problems that need to be resolved. I think a lot of those problems are due to the fact that many of the member countries are not picking up the slack—my country is one of them. So was Britain. Eventually Britain said, ‘You know what, we’re just going to quit.’ Which is in my opinion not the right way to go. My next book considers the Czech role in the future of Europe a whole lot more than this book. In this book I wanted to portray where the current model of capitalism was headed, trying to mimic America and England…
Rail: What do you mean by certain members not taking up the slack?
Kalfar: Debating too much whether they should stay in or not. Instead they should be debating things such as, should there be elections for the EU Parliament. Which there are not right now. What should be required of the member states and should certain member states be able to dictate what is required more than other states. The EU functions on a democratic socialist model in the first place. So maybe there is something wrong with the fact that Germany is able to dictate so much more how the EU runs than, say, the Czech Republic or Greece or Italy.
Rail: These debtor nations to northwestern Europe.
Kalfar: It’s a distribution of power that is problematic to me. That’s not what the founding idea was.
Rail: Not ever-closer union, definitely. So with a character like Shoe Man [the novel’s villain], you’re reckoning with that. The history of Central and Eastern Europe.
Kalfar: Yes. He’s a perfectly innocent human being, just wanted to be a scholar, but got caught up in political process and then chewed up by… because of the cruelty and thirst for revenge he acquires because of politics, he becomes this—he’ll be anyone. In this way he resembles Jakub’s father, who will also be anyone.
Rail: The novel casts some sort of judgment on someone like Shoe Man. I wouldn’t say he gets a reprieve but he’s humanized, his bad actions are made understandable. Do you think to the extent that Jakub chooses not to perpetuate this cycle of violence—at the end of the novel he’s traumatized and trying to be alone and distance himself from this sweep of history, which has just been fucking him psychologically his whole life—what attracts you about that kind of hero? That kind of protagonist? Where at the end he doesn’t get something, acquire something, but subtracts himself.
Kalfar: Jakub, just like his father, is pressured to be a certain way by the currents of history, by the people in his life who tried to manipulate him to be a certain way or another… I wanted him to be the first person he knew to just withdraw and give himself a moment of peace to think about the man he wanted to be. Because his father never did that. Neither did Shoe Man. They were both reactionists. They just reacted to whatever was happening to them. That kind of character is interesting to me. We once again live in a reactionary period in human history. It’s a trend. I was interested in a man who despite everything that happens to him, and he had ever right and reason to come up to Lenka and say, hey, I’m back, what are you going to do about that; he had every reason to try to murder Shoe Man; but a person who actually tries to detach himself from history and just repair himself and think for a while.
Rail: At the same time he’s someone who—it’s interesting it’s such a propulsive novel, the voice is very charming at the beginning, and in a lot of contemporary readable novels there’s a lot of action very quickly; that’s what you’re supposed to do when you open a novel. This one doesn’t do that very much. You break up the stillness of the beginning with memory, but—as a writer, I ask this question—did you ever feel anxious about the lack of ‘action’ at the beginning, dialogue, etc.?
Kalfar: Coming from the background that I have—the Czech novel, the Central European novel, maybe the European novel in general has a tendency to focus on character over plot. I was never all that concerned with, is this moving along quickly? Is it not moving along quickly? My initial interest was in trapping Jakub in that vessel and then seeing what develops from there. Plot is always a concern, it’s one of the reasons people read books, it’s the series of events but it happened organically. If the right move was to watch Jakub in training first, I would’ve done it. But it felt like trapping him at his loneliest and most scared that he’s ever been seemed like the right move to get him to the place where he will—we will be concerned with him as a character, but he’ll start thinking about the past that got him there.
Rail: Which is how you balance the not-as-plot-heavy beginning. So much of the plot development is character. And you do see yourself in that tradition you just described, the Central European novel. Do you feel there’s a way you approach storytelling that’s different from the way that other people did at NYU [your MFA program]?
Kalfar: Big question. It’s hard to talk about it in terms of literary background. What does being an American writer even mean anymore? But to talk specifically about workshop, I felt I was more engaged in the character and the natural progression of character rather than coming up with a catchy plot that would get readers into the work. There might be an unfortunate emphasis on that in MFA programs. We can’t fault publishers for wanting to give readers a good taste of, this is the journey you’re going on. This is the difference we have to place on people who publish on the work and people who write them. It’s an especially terrible idea because no one really knows what sells. The publishers have some numbers on their side, but a writer never knows what’s going to sell. That’s not a thing.
Rail: Something interesting happens in the second half of the book. Maybe a consequence of Jakub being forced into other situations with humans. His moral compass changes. He almost dies. That experience is traumatizing obviously. But then he causes several people to die. That’s something that’s really weighty. You handle it pretty deftly, you dispatch with it quickly. Not melodramatically. How do you make that switch—from this sensitive soul to someone who’s capable of killing people?
Kalfar: That scene took a lot of time. I started thinking about the kinds of things people do in order to survive. You have people jumping walls to get to safety. Lifting cars. I was thinking, Jakub wants to get back home, and this threat of where he could end up if he doesn’t do anything seemed too hard to bear for him. He wanted to be free, also, he always wanted to be free. And his father was sort of captivated by this Soviet propaganda. He wants to get as far from that as he possibly can. Because of his thoughts—thinking I’m going to be a prisoner, this is what is going to happen to me: it wasn’t any kind of premeditated murder or anything. He said, I’m going to try to alter the course of my life a little bit, especially after he spent so much time being on a straight course on a mission that was determined for him. And yeah he made that decision. One of the reasons why he is the way he is at the end is that he did cause the death of people. When I imagine that for myself I imagine I’d want to retreat and rethink what kind of human being I am.
Rail: That makes sense. It’s something I would have never predicted it for him, I think. But he has a free choice, in my perspective. I also found it interesting how—I love the scene where he goes to talk to Lenka and she doesn’t show up. It’s clear to the reader she won’t show up. But you do it in a way where it’s clear what you’re doing but I still accept it and find it funny and sad. Were there any questions in that scene—am I being too obvious? Too subtle? Those kind of questions.
Kalfar: That scene was the second most difficult. Just because where it is in the timeline, I had a version of that scene in workshop in my first year at NYU—four-and-a-half years ago. I went through everything, Jakub talking to Lenka, her telling him she was divorcing him over Skype, I had a lawyer telling him… initially I kept going toward the make it funny, make it satirical as much as you can idea, but eventually I said Jakub is a person, and this is important news he receives, and how he receives it and how he reacts to it determine much of the rest of the book. So I reached sort of a subtle approach. Lenka sort of disappears. Which also made sense because Lenka is an introvert. She escapes and tries to make sense of it herself, just like Jakub escapes into space to make sense of the things that are haunting him.
Rail: You place more of the weight on how he’s preparing for the date. Dressing up, doing things very differently. You spent so much time exploring his emotional and mental states in that moment that I didn’t care that I knew what was going to happen. Or sensed, intuited it. Because there’s so much care for him, for showing the reader how much this moment means to him—it’s going to save his relationship in his mind. So it seems difficult as a writer to take small things in an individual’s life and use them to talk about the history of Soviet Communism in the Czech Republic. An accumulation of small memories, but you’re talking about something very weighty. When you started this did you know you wanted to get down a record about historical experience?
Kalfar: One of the top concerns for me was to study—there’s a lot of guilt in my country over the communist years, who collaborated, who did what. Everyone looks at it from the point of view of the righteous, the people who didn’t collaborate. I was interested in families of people who did collaborate. Jakub’s father collaborated because he thought he was building a better world for his son—in the same way that the worst criminals in history, the Nazis, were. I was interested in looking at it from the point of view of a family member who grew up thinking, dad is doing that, dad is being a hero—and then realizing, no, dad was a criminal, and he was a horrible person who did awful things to other people. When looking at the personal history of Jakub, I wanted his family to be on the wrong side of that history. Not only to give him a reason to want to make up for it, but because you don’t encounter those stories all that much.
Rail: But his father isn’t a collaborator because of the graft. He believes in the communist cause.
Kalfar: He’s not just a sadist or an opportunist. Which is the saddest person of them all, the guy who got suckered into hurting other people…
Rail: Why did you decide to have him die in an accident rather than stand trial?
Kalfar: I didn’t want Jakub’s father to have any opportunity to justify him directly.
Kalfar: Too easy.
Rail: And Hanu comes around as a replacement for Lenka, Jakub’s wife. He and Jakub have this kind of bromance. Why did you decide to make him a spider? How do you deal with him being, potentially, a character who seems like he ‘knows the truth’—the one who seems when he’s introduced to know more of the truth than the other characters? Those kinds of characters can easily become containers for the author’s personal philosophy. But he doesn’t become that. How did you balance Hanu needing to teach Jakub something about getting over his earth life and also not having him be a dispenser of truth?
Kalfar: Why is he a spider? The village of Jakub’s grandparents is based on the village of my grandparents. Whenever I thought about things a lot, or grieved, I lay on the couch and looked at the ceiling—and there were a lot of daddy longlegs spiders up there. I came to associate them with wisdom. I looked up there and there they were, minding their own business.
As for Hanus as a truth-teller—I think the significance of him really is in what he does learn from human beings. It seems that he comes perfectly prepared for the illogical tendencies of human beings. Let’s say someone is afraid of death. Well, fuck you, you shouldn’t be, it happens, that’s what happens; that could be the logical response. The fact he is so well-equipped to resist all the human contradictions and then he falls into them anyway, and becomes a believer in this human… I don’t know what to call it. The human contradictions. The fact that he becomes afraid of the same things that human beings are afraid of. I wanted him to be kind of a skeptical character at first. Skeptical, cold, an alien creature who’d say, “None of what you do makes sense.” I wanted a creature who would be willing to fall victim to the spell of how we’re human. That doesn’t make anything any more logical. But I found charm in this creature who would fall for it anyway.
Rail: The presence of Russians in the book. Laika the dog. The Russian spacecraft. One of those weird moments in literature where you’re talking about a larger symbolic relationship, the one between Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, but you’re doing it with real language and real characters—in high school English class they would call this symbolism, because one thing is standing for a larger thing outside of it. There’s obviously so much political gamesmanship right now, but did those scenes feel very politically charged? Like Jakub in front of the Russian spaceship?
Kalfar: The past few years, the intentions of Russia have been very clearly stated—their interference in the rest of Europe. There is still very much this concern in Eastern and Southern European countries about the influence Russia wants over them. And I wanted to portray that especially because after the end of the Cold War, a lot of countries think that it’s all over and those countries are liberated and free to do as they want—which has never really been true. When the Bush administration wanted to install an anti-nuclear device in the Czech Republic, they were drawing up the contract and the Russian cut off the natural gas supply to us. There have been many incidents like that in Poland, in Ukraine.
Rail: That was how the incursion in Georgia started, right?
Kalfar: Also that invasion, right. So I wanted to portray that relationship. Despite the Czech Republic being a looking-ahead capitalist country, we’re still looking at the specter of Russian communism, the Russians looking to regain those territories and looking to have the Slavs united as a single nation which to me is the most terrifying thing in the world.
Rail: And you see Jakub develop a personal relationship with the Russian astronaut who saves him—and then politics literally tears them apart. History tears them apart too. As friends or whatever they were going to be, there’s no getting beyond that, history, politics. I’m sure you have Russian friends, but… do you think that’s part of the geopolitical essence of Russia? Can Eastern, Southern and Central Europe and Russia ever be friends?
Kalfar: I don’t think the countries of Russia and Czech Republic can be friends anytime soon. Russia’s interests are not in the interests of the Czech Republic. But then again, the interests of the Czech Republic are maybe not in the best interest of America… which is what I was trying to talk about in terms of the determinations of small countries in the book. What do small countries do who are caught up with superpowers and are trying to determine their own fates?