Jaroslav Kalfař: Putting Czech literature back on the international radar with Spaceman of Bohemia

Jaroslav Kalfař, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

The young Prague-born writer Jaroslav Kalfař has received a great deal of attention in the international media for his debut novel Spaceman of Bohemia, which combines elements of science fiction with references to Czech history and mixes absurd humour and moral questions. Kalfař lives in New York and wrote the book in English. When we spoke recently, the author – who has drawn comparisons with several of the greatest modern Czech novelists – was on one of his first visits back to his native city since moving to the US.

Jaroslav Kalfař,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“I moved there when I was 15 years old, 13 years ago. Originally my mother moved there first. She moved there to make a little bit of money – she was cleaning hotel rooms.

“She met an American who asked her to marry her, and she did. I came to visit them just for the summer. I wasn’t planning on staying in the US at all.

“I liked the beaches in Florida. I liked the sun. And I was 15 years old, so I wasn’t thinking about my future or making any plans.

“So I decided to stay, on a whim.”

It seems to me remarkable that you can write so well in a language that isn’t your first language. How long had you been in the States before you were confident enough to write in English?

“It took me around seven or eight years before I started playing around with writing in English. Writing short stories, etcetera.

“It was terrible at the beginning. It was awful. But it was the practice that got me to where I am now.”

You dropped out of high school at one point. Why? And how did you spend those years of your life?

“[Laughs] That is correct. The reason why – I was in love. My girlfriend at the time, my first teenage love, was dropping out as well, so we did it together.

“Our plan was to go to college right away. There’s a test in America called the GED – if you pass it, it means you are high-school proficient and you can go off to college.

“Well, that didn’t quite work out for me, because my immigration papers got lost, so I couldn’t go off to college.

“Instead I ended up working. I was a waiter. I was a cashier in a store. I just went through all kinds of odd jobs.”

Your debut novel Spaceman of Bohemia isn’t by any means only science fiction, but clearly you are immersed in the genre. What first drew you to sci-fi?

“My father had a big collection of just the worst sci-fi movies you can possibly imagine. I loved watching them.”

“I’m not sure. I’ve been reading sci-fi since I was very little.

“I think it was curiosity and the thirst for exploration – and what it meant in the context of the heroes of the books and in the context of humanity.

“It seemed like everything was possible in science fiction.”

Are there particular sci-fi writers, or movies, that you like?

“Yes, absolutely. I grew up reading Stanislaw Lem, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke – the classics.

“As far as movies, there are a lot of classics that I love, like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“But really I have to pay homage to sci-fi B movies. My father had a big collection of just the worst sci-fi movies you can possibly imagine.

“I loved watching those because of their creativity and because of how humorous and playful they were.”

It’s extremely rare for a debut novel to make such a big splash, and there are of course a lot of other great debut novels that don’t get so much attention. Where has it all gone right for you?

“I have no idea. It’s sort of hard to talk about for a writer, because you’re stuck in a room with yourself, talking to yourself for so long.

Photo: Hachette Book Group
“And the book is sort of the result of all of your obsessions and all the things you love.

“Then the best hope is you hand it over to the people and you see if they react to it or not.”

But how did you go from being in your room writing your book to the two of us sitting here talking about it today? Somebody must have helped you along the way.

“Oh, of course. Finding a good agent is the single most important thing a writer can do – somebody who will fight for the work, somebody who will find the right publisher for it.

“It took me about a year to find a good agent for Spaceman, but as soon as I found her she stopped reading everything else she was reading. She fell in love with the book and became a great champion for it.

“She was able to find a publisher and an editor who also loved the book and were sort of willing to put it out into the world in a way that would get attention for it.”

There are countless references to Czech culture in the book. You have the zabijačka [pig killing], Tatranky [wafer bar], lots of Czech history, and the spaceship is called the Jan Hus 1. What is the reaction of your US readers to all of these Czech references?

“I think that a lot of American readers are very curious about these things, about other cultures and how things are done.

“And the Czech Republic has not really been on the international radar, in literature anyway, in a while, so I think it’s refreshing for American readers.

“I’m excited that I can sort of let them experience our humour and our culture.”

And how do they deal with the names? Or even your name?

“[Laughs] They try their best. I have a lot of people coming up to me asking me, How the hell do you say your first name? How the hell do you say your last name?

“And they try and it’s great.”

“I wanted my first novel to be about Czech history, about the Czech present. Then it just sort of clicked that the astronaut in the story should be Czech.”

I was reading that the idea of the spaceman came before the idea of Bohemia, in that the story was originally going to be about a US astronaut.

“That is correct. Spaceman began as a short story about an American astronaut who is stuck in space when his wife calls him and asks for a divorce.

“It was sort of a humorous, light story. I was very fascinated by this spaceman character who has just lost somebody and I was curious to see how he deals with everything.

“But at the same time I wanted my first novel to be about Czech history, about the Czech present.

“Then it just sort of clicked that the astronaut in the story should be Czech – and that’s when it became a novel.”

In articles about you there have been so many references to other Czech writers: Kundera, Hrabal, Čapek, Hašek. Do any of those writers in particular mean a lot to you personally?

“All of them, yes. I absolutely love Milan Kundera. He was a big influence on me, early on.

“And Hrabal. Škvorecký. They’re so fantastic at combining the philosophical and the humorous and the tragedy, and they’re sort of the pillars of Czech literature.”

At the heart of the book there are quite a few serious issues, like retribution. How hard is it to balance the kind of light side, the often absurd humour of the book, with more serious issues like loneliness or, again, retribution?

“It’s difficult. It can be hard sometimes to determine what you can satirise and what you can make fun of and what is too serious to be satirised in any way.

Jaroslav Kalfař,  photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová
“I think the writer just relies on their own instincts regarding these things and just sort of hopes for the best.”

What was the attraction for you of modern Czech history, in particular? I’m talking about the depiction in the book of aspects of the communist period and the Wild East, corrupt period of the 1990s.

“I was determined to use the communist past as a sort of passage into what kind of a country the Czech Republic is now and what kind of a country it can become.

“Because I did not live in the communist years but I did live in the years right after and I watched my parents and my grandparents dealing with the transformation into a democratic, capitalist society.

“I was very interested in how that past can still haunt us and how that past can still perhaps prevent us from becoming the best country and the best people we can be.”

About communism, you live in the States and you’re young – I don’t know old you were in 1989 [in actual fact he was born in 1989], but you can’t remember it. Did you do research?

“I did a lot of research on the history, of course.

“But a lot of the smaller moments in the book, the more intimate moments, about what it was like to live in those times, I took directly from hearing stories in the pub, from my grandfather, from his friends, from the sort of village pub talk.”

You have with you the Czech translation of the book, which you didn’t translate yourself. Did you consider doing it?

“I considered it briefly. But considering that I have not been writing in Czech actively in 13 years, it seemed that I should leave it to a professional, somebody who has been doing translations for a long time.

“Because translating is a strange, different beast than just writing.”

Are you still capable of writing Czech?

“Very much so, yes. When we’re talking about literature, not as well as in English perhaps.

“But I can still write.”

Is there any talk of a movie of Spaceman of Bohemia?

“A lot of the more intimate moments in the book I took from hearing stories in the pub, from my grandfather, from his friends, from the sort of village pub talk.”

“There has been interest from some producers, asking us.

“We’re being very careful, because I want to make sure that if there’s a movie that it’s done the right way…”

Famous last words.

“[Laughs]. Exactly. I want to make sure that I write the script and that good people work on the film, if it happens.”

Looking to the future, do you think you will again explore Czech themes? Or have you got it out of your system now?

“I will absolutely be writing about the Czech Republic for a long time. Yes.”

I believe you don’t come back here so often. From your distance, and as a kind of occasional visitor, how do you view the Czech Republic today?

“First I will say that my not being able to come here too often was involuntary.

“It was because I was not able to afford it, my family was not able to afford it, so I was sort of stuck in exile for a bit.

“Now I’m happy that I can come more often and experience the country more often.

“And I feel optimistic about the country.

“I feel that there are certain political figures who are making things difficult on the country and who are greedy and who have their own interests in mind before the interests of the people.

“But there are plenty of those politicians in every country. That’s nothing original.

“I think the way we have developed our economy and developed our culture as a people after those difficult communist years is extremely impressive.

“I think we are a thriving democracy.

“So despite some setbacks, and despite some problems, I’m proud of this country.”