Complicated life journeys of four characters are a foundation for a handful of observations about love, art, ethics and activism in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a classic book from a Czech writer who takes a close look at the inner life of his characters. And he should be far more than the Eighties obsession – it’s a great read for the modern generation, too.
A surgeon Tomas is an unapologetic womaniser. When he meets Tereza in a small hotel outside of Prague, he doesn’t realise yet that the waitress from a provincial town will hit his life with such an impact – but a couple of weeks after, she’s in the capital, silently hoping for a life by his side. However, he’s not willing to give up his routine, his long-term relationship with an artist mistress Sabina, and the days filled with picking whatever he wants from life. But it doesn’t take long until his philosophy evolves, causing a couple of difficulties along the way.
Philosophical as it gets, the stories of four main characters and a lovely dog Karenin are just a notion for the author to examine the differences between the platonic and physical love, the degree of commitment to activism (and where it springs from), or the boundary between good taste and kitsch. All of them are different, but vividly painted amongst the writer’s elaborate essays on the philosophy of daily life. Tomas is a divorcee with a son that he doesn’t really know that much – he’s given up the efforts, convinced that his offspring is brainwashed by the fiercely communist mother. He can’t imagine giving up his bachelor lifestyle, and when he meets a girl that changes his life, he develops somewhat unusual boundary between the intimate and physical. Tereza comes from a difficult background – her life was defined by the choice of her parents for long, and the choices of her partner seem to reinforce what she wanted to fight so badly. Sabina is a sophisticated artist who learned to conform and betray; with her provocativeness and liberalness, she’s a definition of a bohemian artist. And there’s Franz, too, whose choice he made in his young years came to haunt him for long and left him craving change. All of them have been shaped by different experiences, and it’s their biggest barrier to overcome. There’s a lot to be learned from their complex portraits, but the author doesn’t serve us mere morals rather than something to think about. Switching narrations and dream descriptions in the story that’s far from linear, Kundera builds up the surrealism upon the daily bread of the heroes in the story. We’re not to be distracted by the surface: there’s much more to these stories than meets the eye.
Kundera’s musings on love, ethics, dreams and death couldn’t be more relevant today. Painting the reality of living in Czechoslovakia in the Sixties and Seventies, he goes into the landscapes familiar to the western readers from Nineteen Eighty-Four. People lose jobs because of their political non-compliance, innocent humans have their lives destroyed by the radically communist government, the rooms where the opposition hangs out are likely to be bugged, the investigation takes the repetitions and rephrasing until the will of the interviewee is broken. The life under the regime after the Prague Spring is depicted with attention to detail – and it seems like it might give to those who have little idea about the history of the Eastern Bloc a little understanding. From the morality that seems to be so different (but again, only on the surface!) when Tereza hears from her Swiss colleague, “I could tell where you were raised” when her pictures from Prague in 1968 fade away in the light of the photo documentary from a nudist beach, to the true face of rebels, it opens up the world that is not often introduced in the Western literature or film beyond the spy stories. The book echoes the student protests in Paris, too, and one of the characters goes on the march to the borders of Cambodia; it makes for such a satisfying portrait of the decade that it won’t leave you disappointed.
The lightness that the author is preoccupied with is something that’s easy to achieve for one character, and difficult to understand by the other; however, the four central characters stir the surface to emphasise the observations about life. Give it a quiet afternoon, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being will leave you richer with many new thoughts on your own when it comes to the subject.
Have you got any recommendations for our spring book series? Tweet us at @besidemag or tag what you’re reading @beside_mag!