4 out of 5
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
By Milan Kundera
First Published: 1984
Translated into English (from Czech) by Michael Henry Heim.
About the Author…
Milan Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929. His experiences as a young intellectual in his war-torn homeland are evident in this partly autobiographical novel. He was a vocal advocate for the reformation of Czech communism after WWII, and was thus silenced in Prague after the 1968 Spring Uprising, before taking exile in France, where he remains to this day.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being packs some pretty heavy philosophical punches. Kundera begins by weighing up- pardon the pun- the significance of lightness vs. weight, and the inevitable question of which is preferable to the human condition.
He compares Nietzsche’s philosophy of eternal return (heaviness) against Parmenides, who understood life as divided into either lightness or weight.
Kundera agrees with Nietzsche when he claims that eternal recurrence allows us to overcome meaninglessness, and therefore obtain happiness. In other words: we crave repetition; we crave the mundane; repetition is happiness.
However, Kundera departs from Nietzsche when he claims that eternal recurrence is impossible, since a human life only occurs once, moving ahead in a straight line. By doing so Kundera asks his audience how there can be any significance to life, when there is no eternal return, “”What happens 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.” And thus, man will never be happy.
Kundera also has issues Parmenides, who claimed that that in life, lightness was positive, and weight negative. Instead he struggles with which is preferable, a struggle that is represented in his characters- Tereza and Franz symbolize weight, Thomas and Sabina, lightness.
Kundera sets his novel against the backdrop of war-torn Czechoslovakia in the midst of Russian invasion, during the famous 1968 Spring Uprising, and spans over two decades.
In Bohemia, Prague we meet our main protagonist, Thomas; as well known for his work as a surgeon as he is for his unapologetic womanizing (but who ultimately ends up a window-washer).
He struggles incessantly with the inequalities he perceives between thought and emotion, between love and lust, between lightness and weight. Even after marrying his wife, Tereza, he fails to see any reason to cease his adulterous affairs, because to him, his mistresses pose no threat to his wife, and lust poses no threat to love. He believes his mistresses give weight (or meaning) to an otherwise excruciatingly light existence.
Thomas borrows the line “Es’ muss sein” (it must be) from a Beethoven composition, and uses it often to describe his relationship with Tereza, whom he both adores, and at times despises, but believes he has no choice in loving because, ‘it must be.’ He believes that fate sent Tereza to him; vulnerable, sick and needy, like Moses in a “bulrush basket”. It was because of this belief that Thomas left the safety of Switzerland to follow Tereza back to Prague- a decision he later regrets, when he becomes ostracized and oppressed by the regime.
But still he remains (un)loyal to Tereza until the very end.
Sabina, Thomas’s favourite mistress, and close friend, is a Czech artist who lives for rebellion, detests kitsch and is known as the eternal betrayer, “Betrayal means breaking ranks and going off into the unknown. Sabina knew of nothing more magnificent…”
After Thomas moves back to Prague Sabina is forced to find other suitable affairs that will quench her insatiable thirst for ‘lightness’.
Enter Franz. Dear, sweet, silly Franz; the eternal optimist; naïve dreamer; and idealistic sop. If Sabina represents black, then Franz- a Swiss lecturer- is the most dazzling white you’ve ever seen.
Lightness is not something he strives to obtain. He wishes for nothing more than to feel the weight (or importance as he sees it) of his existence. After embarking on an adulterous affair with Sabina, he leaves his wife and daughter, only to be simultaneously dumped by Sabina (having a monogamous relationship with an un-married man was simply out of the question for rebellious Sabina).
After Sabina’s sudden departure from his life, he tries hard to legitimize and enjoy his new sense of freedom. He takes a young lover, moves into a new apartment, and struggles to find meaning in his life.
He becomes obsessed with the idea of a “great and noble march towards a brighter future’. Before long he finds the perfect outlet to fulfill his idealistic dreams when he is invited to travel to Cambodia and participate in a protest (with other intellectuals and celebrities) against the Khmer Rouge. In one of my favourite and most fitting literary deaths, Franz’s ‘great and noble march’ concludes unsuccessfully at the hands of Thai muggers in Bangkok.
This was my first time reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I feel like it’s one of those books that you need to read a few times before it can be fully appreciated. Having said that though, I thought this book was incredible. It’s universal themes of sexuality, politics, betrayal, love, life and death transcends its context. The way Kundera deals with these issues is unique and riveting, ensuring the books relevancy almost thirty years after it was written.