This is a book with a sense of durable quality to it, memorable for the right reasons and written with the hallmarks of literature in mind, a world away from the cheesy pulp of “Take me to your leader” and “What is this Earth thing called kissing?” Czech readers are going to be irritated by this review, pompous appraisal from a faraway land, but I hear the music and I can fully imagine the students of Bohemia and Moravia being assigned this novel to study at school, as it documents the historical influences and identities imposed on one life-stream through a deluge of unopposable cultural change, followed by unopposable reversal and reinvention. It also explores how the astronaut (and Jan Hus as his historical parallel) started as a mere mortal who made human choices and then transformed into an idea, a thing, an abstract shape of salvation, pride, sausages, a symbol of nationhood or any of a string of misty constructs on which we rely to motivate us, make us less afraid and prop up our imaginary world. The real person and the perfect symbolic form they have been enshrined into don’t have much in common when they stand face to face, then the human realises that the people need the ideal of the principled hero more than the man, so the martyr’s idol would fall if the original returned, alive, well and flawed. How dare he!
Jaroslav Kalfar has perhaps attempted to write “The Great Czech Novel” and aspired to join the highest standard of his nation’s literature. I think he’s almost, but not quite, achieved it. “Truths must not be feared”, he writes, and this slim shortfall isn’t a surprise when to walk amongst the likes of Karel Čapek, Jaroslav Hašek, Franz Kafka and Bohumil Hrabal would be even more remarkable given the flood of life experience and sheer natural ability for expressing the twists and crumples of everyday humanity those stately writers had. So, it’s good, but it isn’t the most poetic literature I’ve read from a newbie this year. The fact that I’ve been forced to consider where to place Jaroslav Kalfar in the eternal structure, the pyramid of greatness or hall of fame, speaks volumes. Jealously whispers in my ear that as there’s no “Great British Novel” to speak of, so it would rub the insult in if the Czechs extended their lead to about fourteen works. Then again, all Czech novels are about the Czech’s favourite subject, the Czechs, so the best of them would automatically qualify as great Czech novels, wouldn’t they? It stands to reason.
In a country where everyone knows a collaborator and everyone is related to a dissident, this isn’t the first writer to have explored both sides of the ideological fence. If you Google Milan Kundera reporting a fellow student, the denial, the evidence, that’s another idol falling.
However, there’s a second tier of literature set apart from these four headline names, a jumble of lesser saints behind the front line of literary apostles: Ota Pavel, Milan Kundera and Jan Neruda etc. (Some will claim Stefan Zweig, but he was Austrian). These are the near misses of the immortality game, the worthy fellows who were brave enough to dive from the very highest plank but the judges thought they clipped the edge of the pool. Some writers dive and miss the planet entirely. Some, like Svěrák and Smoljak, played with language for the sake of fun and never even considered the stuffy business of applying for membership and taking themselves seriously to be a justified aim. Images, feelings, metaphors, emotional impact and historical melancholy, it’s all here, in this book, so what have I got to fuss about? Nothing really, apart from the first third reading like a prolonged product-placement advert for Nutella. I don’t think it’s a failure in any sense if I tell you that this author is establishing a place in that second line because the second line of Czech writers are better than many countries’ finest.
What’s good? This book does what science fiction was born to do – show us our own world from a different perspective, through a lens that we haven’t used to see it before. The author understands and applies this principle perfectly, as a method to inspect the narrator’s identity in the context of the sins of the fathers. He does, after all, come from the nation that gave us contact lenses, Semtex and finger prints. Was his (the character’s) father inducted or induced to follow a conquering ideology? The subtlety lies in a different use of the verb. Would his parent, a simple citizen who followed a trail of communist sweeties into his job at a torture chamber, have followed ANY ideology that happened to be winning at the time? Is bowing down to conquerors what people do in this place, an inbuilt national imperfection? Were Václav Havel and Charter 77 so revered because their defiance was such a clear exception to hundreds of years of supplication? Hus was a martyr for religion and that poor student who set himself alight was a martyr against Soviet takeover, but when a free Czech President faced the seminal test of national character, the choice between the country itself falling as a martyr under a Germanic monster’s boots or submission to save lives and property, that’s what happened. I’m referring to the rest, not the areas in the Munich betrayal. More of that later.
After you reduce this story to its component chemicals, it’s really an exploration of the sorrow and euphoria of the Czech condition through the medium of science fiction. What is it to be Czech? Is it a national cry after so much injustice to simply be noticed and respected as a worthy and equivalent nation? Is that really the secret, the stressed violin note that all Czechs carry within them? Is that the elephant in the room, the blue faced Fantomas in the crowd at the Ice Hockey World Championships?
“…now with true desperation, as the rodent beat at the world to convince it of its worth, not a plea but a demand: Hear me! Let me out! I am here!”
If Czech literature is to be indivisible from the Czech condition and the history of the Czech lands, non-Czechs probably need a quick introduction: The Czech Republic is in Central Europe, not Eastern. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist in 1993 when Slovakia became a separate country, so don’t call it that or you’ll just upset people. It was never part of the USSR or CCCP but was in the Soviet Bloc until freedom in 1989. Charles IV was the Holy Roman Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The Republic is at “the crossroads of empires”, so called because it has assumed the unfortunate geographical position of being somewhere that’s on everyone’s way to conquering anything else. The lands have thus been over-run by many different ideological expansions, the leaders of which have demanded that the Czechs serve them, as a vassal territory. The Czech lands were terrorised by the Catholic church, then conquered and ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a couple of hundred years. The Golden Age of the First Republic followed, independence under the scholarly President Tomáš Massaryk, 1918, which became the high point of Czech culture and confidence relative to other countries at the same time, when this was the world’s 5th largest economy. After that came the Munich Accord, when, to their countries’ eternal and unforgiveable shame, the weasel leaders of the US, Germany and the UK met without the Czechs in the room and agreed that Hitler could have sections of their country (Sudetenland) in exchange for peace. A short while later, the Germans took and occupied the rest of the country as well, which was the time when the Czech leader had to choose between a doomed defence of his nation and preserving lives and the architecture of medieval Prague by approving German “protection”, a polite word for slavery. After WWII, the Czech lands stood free again until a socialist government colluded with the Russians to stage an invasion to “protect them against a coup” (which never existed), giving the Russians a pretext to invade and take ownership of the country. This situation lasted for decades and the rule was brutal, with cheap beer or party privileges to bring some into compliance and fear to control the rest. In 1989 the nation became a free and independent country again, which lasted until in 2003 when the Czech people voted to cancel independence and give up the right to vote for their rulers, becoming owned and looted by another foreign conqueror which makes its own laws uncontested, the European Commission. Czechs, it seems, find comfort in being told what to do under someone else’s empire.
“I wanted what every human wants. For someone to tell me what to choose.”
A village called Wednesday, that’s very Czech, and so is SuperZub (super tooth) the toothpaste sponsor and the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square of Prague, an image engraved on every Czech’s consciousness. Changing the clock equates to changing the nation because it’s presided over the whole of a shared history. We are shown a capital city full of colourful school backpacks where tatty tee shirts (tourist souvenirs) hang from shops and wave in the wind like the nation’s flag, acknowledging that Prague was shabby for a while with its unpainted walls and souvenir soviet tourist tat sold by Russian shop keepers who still had leases, until the city reversed decades of communist neglect and flowered again into something beautiful. This is a nation founded not on abstracts, the book tells us, but on pictures. It’s also built on the wrecks of history and the philosophy of lives that were lived in its walkways. Will the astronaut be taken by death and see his birthright disappear? Losing your cultural birthright is like death to Czechs because it forms an existential oneness with them. Rusalka is in there, the proud home-grown opera about the green haired water sprite and his spurned daughter. This waterman lives beneath the surface of a pond and keeps the souls of the drowned in a collection of little pots, an image set to music and a tide of song. No mention of mushrooms in this book is amazing. I thought Czech writers were bound by law to talk about mushrooms?
The wise President knows that his job involves feeding the people’s souls as well as their bellies and, for that purpose alone, he flies a Czech into space.
“Even if he returns, what kind of man will he be?”
We meet Hanus (a civilised alien) and the Gorompeds (conquering aliens), which act as deep focus lenses for the author to explore the realm of identity and tease apart beliefs. The journey is harsh, both physically and psychologically, but the central character emerges refreshed and shaking off his baggage of guilt and those shackles of inherited history. The bad beliefs become abstract images, then paper tigers of ancient fear, we should now fear nothing, but equally the “good” side fall off their perch into the glamourous traps of corruption and cease to be the ideal pictures of nationhood that once they were.
“People don’t think of dead men as physical bodies, he said, but as glorified concepts.”
In summary, you probably need to read this. It has complexities and subtle jolts that will fill your mind and return in your idle thoughts. It isn’t the best thing in Czech literature but it is pretty impressive for a first novel. Maybe the best things in Czech writing are no longer books but have transformed into symbolic images and taken their place above, a dominance impossible to challenge by any living writer. If a living writer can do it, this might be the one.