NEA Literature Fellowships

Jaroslav Kalfař

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Jaroslav Kalfar

Photo by Grace Ann Leadbeater

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from Spaceman of Bohemia

I passed through the knot of time like sand slipping away inside an hourglass, grain by grain, atom by atom.

Time was not a line, but an awareness. I was no longer a body, but a series of pieces whistling as they bonded. I felt every cell within me. I could count them, name them, kill them, and resurrect them. Within the core, I was a tower made of fossil fragments. I could be disassembled and reassembled. If only someone knew the correct pressure point, I would turn into a pile of elements running off to find another bond, like seasonal farmhands journeying from East to West.

This is what elements do. They leap into darkness until something else catches hold of them. Energy has no consciousness. Force plots no schemes. Things crash into one another, form alliances until physics rips them apart and sends them in opposite directions.

The core offered no wisdom. It took away my senses. It made me live inside my own body, truly, made me a flash of matter without the power of reflection. I wasn’t a human. I was a stream of dust. What did you expect? the core asked me. No, I asked that of myself. Another projection. My desperation to ascribe personality and will to capricious outcomes of chaos. The true kings of the world, elements and particles, had no agenda except movement.

I regained sight just as the core ejected me, then my wits as I passed the core’s calm atmosphere and collided with the storm of raging dust. The core had ejected me back into the world at the speed of a launching shuttle. The spiraling dust particles cut into my gloves and chest, forced cracks into my visor. I set my hands upon the helmet’s lock, considering a swifter end.

Death in Space would be a brief affair. For ten seconds, I would remain conscious. During this time, gasses in my lungs and digestive system would cause a painful expansion of organs, leading to a rupture of my lungs and the release of oxygen into my circulatory system. Muscles would bloat to twice their current size, causing stretch marks and bruising. The sun would burn blisters into my cheeks and forehead. Saliva would boil off my tongue. After these ten seconds of agony, my brain would asphyxiate and my consciousness would melt into the surrounding darkness. Cyanosis would turn my skin blue, my blood would boil, my mouth and nasal cavities would freeze until finally, the heart would cease to function, rendering me an exquisite corpse, a dry, gaseous Smurf at the altar of the Milky Way.

I was ready for this quick passage, when I felt a tap on my back. Hanuš was soaring with me, his skin gray and shriveled, like a potato cooked in hot ashes. A blister appeared above his right lip. We were to move on together. I removed my hands from the helmet. Soon enough, the dust would cut through the suit far enough to depressurize it, and I could still have a cosmic death. I would use my ten seconds to remove the suit and follow the example set by Laika—allow for the vacuum to embalm me and preserve me as a wax figurine for future generations of explorers.

(Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown, and Company. All rights reserved.)

Jaroslav Kalfař was born one year before the Velvet Revolution in Prague, Czech Republic. He immigrated to the United States at the age of fifteen and learned the English language through novels and cartoons. He has earned an MFA from New York University, where he was a Goldwater Fellow and a nominee for the inaugural E.L. Doctorow Prize. His debut novel, Spaceman of Bohemia, was a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and has been translated into nine languages. He lives in Brooklyn.

I don’t recognize the world I’m living in. Perhaps this sounds overly dramatic, but for a writer, such disorientation can be a valuable motivator. I grew up in a hopeful Europe on the rise, a country adopting democratic values after a long communist winter, embracing the ideal of a prosperous United States of Europe. Now the hopefuls have been beaten back by cynics, and the EU is perilously fragmented and in danger of collapse. I immigrated to an America which seemed to me at first the living ideal of a multifaceted society, a brilliant experiment bringing together the best of the world. I now live in an America that seems as hostile toward the outside as it is toward itself, a society whose march is hindered by multitudes of unforgivable founding sins that won’t, can’t go away.

As many people today, I feel misplaced both in place and in thought, a Great Uncertainty which seems to signal that history is what happens to you when you don’t pay close attention. My second novel is written in this uncertain world, as I observe my characters trying to make sense of the currents stirring their world, seeking a place that might offer some peace and reassurance. Whether this place exists I’m not yet sure, as I haven’t written the ending, but I am so incredibly grateful and honored that the NEA has given me the gift of time and resources for research and travel so that I can continue to look for it. These grants are an investment in artists within a culture that doesn’t always value them. It is a gift that doesn’t expect a return measurable in currency, but rather the enrichment it might offer to the country’s soul. As long as there are people striving to continue these kinds of efforts, I, personally, will remain hopeful despite all uncertainties.