> Zed Book Club / Jaroslav Kalfar’s Futuristic Novel ‘A Brief History of Living Forever’ Imagines a Hellish Afterlife
Photo: Helen Melville
Jaroslav Kalfar’s Futuristic Novel ‘A Brief History of Living Forever’ Imagines a Hellish Afterlife
In a Q&A, the New York author talks about immortality, what he fears most about the year 2023 and why happiness is overrated / BY Kim Honey / March 24th, 2023
We’ve all read stories about people brought back from the brink of death who saw the light at the end of the tunnel or floated blissfully above their corporeal remains. In Jaroslav Kalfar’s new novel A Brief History of Living Forever, Adela Slavikova enjoys none of that when she dies in 2029, even though she deserves a choir of angels.
In the first few pages, the working-class Czech senior is diagnosed with terminal cancer, fired from her cashier job and replaced by a robot. She decides it’s time to find Tereza, the daughter she gave up for adoption, who settled in New York. Adela lives with her son and mother in the Czech village where she was raised, but the problem is the United States is now ruled by a xenophobic Reclamation Party that has tightened its borders to keep immigrants and refugees out. She manages to get a 10-day visitor’s visa that comes with a wrist tracker, to transmit her location to the Homeland Deportation Force.
Adela dies the day after she meets Tereza, a longevity scientist who works for a tech company developing a God pill to extend human life, and awakens with her soul intact but no body, and no way of communicating with her family. She watches and listens as Tereza grieves her death, and follows her to the Czech Republic, where Tereza meets her half brother and grandmother and delivers the sad news.
The genre-smashing second book from Czech-born author Jaroslav Kalfar is a genius mix of road-trip novel, speculative fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, political thriller and mystery. Narrated by Adela from the great beyond – exactly where is a mystery central to the plot – the book flips between a bleak future world and Adela’s past life, beginning in 1978 when she joins the resistance movement that is trying to topple the communist government in Czechoslovakia.
In a phone interview from his home in New York, Kalfar, 34, talks about how his mother and grandmother inspired the strong female characters in the book, why he takes some of our greatest fears and amps them up to satirical heights, and the difference between Czech and American views of happiness.
Kim Honey: Very early in the novel, your protagonist, Adela Slavikova, dies in 2029, and wakes up with a soul, but no body. She can go anywhere in any time period. She can see and hear people, but she can’t talk or talk to them or touch them. Isn’t that a hellish scenario?
Jaroslav Kalfar: I spend a lot of time thinking about these different modes of immortality we’re talking about today with the advancement of technology. And there is a lot of talk about imagining what it’s like to take human consciousness and essentially stick it inside a machine, or have the machine store everything that we consider to be consciousness, and have people live that way. Which isn’t necessarily what I would call living.
KH: The interplay is interesting between Adele’s daughter Tereza, a longevity scientist who wants to “eradicate the disease of aging” by healing the body, and her VITA bosses, Steven and Mark, who want to preserve the soul when its vessel fails. Would you rather have a body that works until you die, or an eternal soul with no body?
JK: I’m on Tereza’s side on this. This more realistic view we have of longevity – where the ideal state would be making people live until the age of 110, 120, without any diseases of aging – that, to me, is Utopia.
KH: Yes, without a long, painful decline. But you have Babi, Adela’s mom, who is 109, and she’s okay.
JK: Babi is a very fascinating part of the puzzle because [the book] doesn’t really explore the reasons behind her longevity. But, to me, there’s no science involved. It’s just that she has had this sort of hardy [Czech] village life, and there’s just something about who she is at her core – her resilience, all the things that she has lived through, all the things that she has seen – that keeps her alive.
KH: Your book doesn’t really reference religion and Adela is raised without it in 1970s Czechoslovakia. For centuries, theologians have tried to figure out what happens to our souls when we die and if there’s an afterlife. Are you religious or agnostic or atheist, and how did your beliefs inform the book?
JK: I was raised atheist, so I never really had any real understanding of religion or any temptation toward it, but I was extremely interested in the question of the afterlife when I was writing this book. There’s this possibility that there is, let’s say, the Christian heaven, and that Adela has actually gone to it.
KH: The bleak future you imagine in this book – which is set in the Czech Republic and America – includes the rise of the far right and its anti-immigration policies, COVID-19, the God pill, robots taking jobs, bankrupt pension plans, climate change, public and private surveillance and AI. How does your brain catastrophize everything to the nth degree like that?
JK: I wanted to capture what it’s like to be just a regular working person living in this crisis, but I wanted it to be satirical as well, so I just turned everything up a notch. It’s impossible that all these things could happen in the next seven years, at least I hope not. I wanted to see how many terrible things could be happening all at once, because that’s how it feels already and it only seems to be only getting worse.
KH: What do you most fear about the year 2030?
JK: I’m tempted to say AI, especially given recent developments, but I kind of think what AI is capable of is a little bit overblown. So I would have to say climate change. There’s a distinct possibility that all of us will, at one point or another, be driven from our homes and become climate migrants. And I think it’s going to be a really scary, bad time for a lot of people on earth.
KH: You were a toddler during the Velvet Revolution, right after the Berlin Wall fell, when Czechs decided the communist government had to go. How did it affect your life, and why did you give that experience of working for the resistance to young Adela?
JK: My grandparents refused to join the party. My father was kicked out of university for that reason, and my grandparents were persecuted by the government. So, I grew up hearing a lot of the war stories about how people suffered under that regime and lionizing the dissidents who resisted. I wanted to examine the dark side with Adela. She enters that world and dreams of being one of those heroes, but things work out quite differently. She loses that glamorous life she had for a while, falls into a depression and her only way out is to go to America.
KH: In the book, Adela often talks about the difference between Czechs and Americans. Do you share her view?
JK: It feels like in America, a lot of people think that the point of life is happiness, and that’s a really dangerous way to think. I think that’s why a lot of people are quite unhappy and seeking therapy, because, to me, the point of life is suffering. That’s sort of the default mode most humans are familiar with. All we can do is do our best to alleviate our own suffering, and other people’s suffering, in any way possible. I know that sounds overly pessimistic, but the truth is kind of freeing. I feel like thinking that way gives me more power over my life, instead of just chasing after happiness.
KH: There’s a lot of ageism in the novel: For example, Adela is forced to work at the hypermarket because the government thinks seniors are “unproductive.” But Babi’s amazing and resilient, and Adela, who must be in her sixties, is pretty cool, too. You seem to have a very positive view of older people. Is that true?
JK: I have an extremely cool mother and extremely cool grandmother, and these characters in the book are definitely modeled after them. And my mom is right now struggling with what Adela described, the ageist crisis where she has worked her entire life, but she doesn’t have wealth. She’s dependent on the state and the state does not like to give. In [the Czech Republic], jobs are extremely hard for older people and women, especially. So, I am angry and passionate about that issue, and I really wanted to deal with them in the book, because also I feel like we don’t have enough books that feature older women, frankly.
KH: This fall, Netflix will air a movie based on your 2017 debut novel, Spaceman of Bohemia, starring Adam Sandler and Cary Mulligan. Some reviewers have said you’ve invented a new genre of sci-fi with that book, and Living Forever is also a mix of sci-fi, speculative fiction, fantasy – you do have a talking carp – and mystery. How would you describe it?
JK: A fantasy afterlife, mystery sci-fi and political and historical thriller. I’m not really interested in any genre expectations. What I love the most as a reader are really original books, when I’m like, “Wow, that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.” I think the point of my career will always be to strive to write books like that.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.