The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera

Nov 2, 2014 review (read between Oct 26, 2014 – Nov 2, 2014)

1st reading read review on Goodreads

I was recommended The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera a few months ago by a friend of mine. Despite having wildly different tastes in what we read, the way he described the book piqued my curiosity. Sadly, my memory isn’t what it used to be and I’ve since forgotten how the book was described to be. I’m glad he brought the book to my attention, however, as I probably would not have gotten around to it anytime soon otherwise.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being follows the lives of two men and two women in Czechoslovakia while it was occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II. Tomas, a womanizing surgeon; Tereza, photographer and Tomas’ young wife; Franz, a professor with an unhappy marriage; and Sabina, Tomas’–and then Franz’s–mistress. Kundera takes the reader deep into the psyche of these four characters, philosophically and poetically deconstructing their thoughts, and in turn, their actions. As a result, each of the characters have an incredible level of uniqueness. Carefully conveyed through retelling of their previous experiences and inner thoughts, their beliefs, desires, and fears are all laid bare for the reader to see.

But to what ends?

The crux of the novel is reflected in its title: ‘lightness.’ In the early pages of the book, Kundera relates Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return and eternal return as “the heaviest of burdens;” in other words ‘weight.’ Kundera but then conjectures that ‘weight,’ despite the negative connotation, makes something real and significant, while ‘lightness,’ can simultaneously mean freedom and insignificance. So given this ambiguity, which is the better?

Kundera explores this quandary with the four characters, primarily using the subjects of love (and infidelity) and weakness (and strength). Tomas seems to be the character that embodies the question at hand: his modus operandi revolves around the German saying ‘Einmal ist keinmal,’ which he interprets as “What happened but once … might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.” The ‘lightness’ of Tomas’ life–its transience and insignificance–is unbearable. He battles this ideology by dedicating all his energy to his work and sexually conquering as many women as he can manage. When he falls in love with Tereza and eventually marries her out of sympathy, he feels nothing but burden from her as she exists as both a physical and emotional barrier to his sexual habits. Tomas does not see his infidelity as a problem, as he believes sex can exist without love, and as far as he is concerned, he still loves Tereza. She, however, does not share his beliefs, but despite being aware of his infidelity holds an unwavering love for Tomas, which only adds to the weight in his conscience. As the novel progresses and Tomas’ and Tereza’s relationship develops, Tomas is able to make peace with his previous way of life, and is able to cast aside his old habits. Tereza, Sabina, and Franz all serve as additional points and counterpoints to the thematic question at hand, but ultimately it is Tomas who serves as Kundera’s voice on the matter.

These interesting philosophical musings are conveyed through some of the most beautiful and engaging writing (and/or beautiful translation) I’ve read. Despite the narrative point of view and time jumping frequently, the overarching message is delivered in a clear, deliberately linear fashion. The characters are fleshed out beautifully as well. Using brisk yet complete streams of consciousness, Kundera somehow manages to incorporates only details that are relevant to answering the question at hand, while making the characters feel whole and real.

And as these lifelike characters struggle and muse through their fictional lives, you can’t help but take a step back and muse yourself. About the weight of the decisions in your life and life in general; about potential futility of it all and how amazing and interesting it is regardless.