Friday, August 7, 2009

Book Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera


I must say up front, so that no one can accuse me of hidden bias: The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of my favorite books, and I have immersed myself in it half a dozen times before. That being the case, the book remains a masterpiece destined to be designated a classic.

The book follows two couples--Tomas and Tereza, Sabina and Franz--in the shadow of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. Tomas is a repeat philanderer; his affair with Sabina is merely one of many. Nonetheless, Tomas loves only Tereza, which offers her little comfort and does nothing to silence her constant nightmares.

The primary question that the novel explores, but does not resolve, inquires about the relative values of lightness and weight. Lightness treats life as something that happens once and never again; the chartacters of the novel who embody lightness--Tomas and Sabina--would agree with Kundera's assertion: a life lived only once, with no ability to compare one life path to another, might as well not have happened at all. On the other hand, Kundera associates weight with Nietzsche's concept of eternal return, in which life recurs infinitely (and so allows comparison). Tereza and Franz are associated with weight; both seek to attach meaning (and thus weight) to that which they value.

Certainly, Kundera presents the reader with complex issues and questions, but the novel is actually very accessible. One thing to keep in mind is that Kundera as the author makes himself known within the narrative. Not only does he (as first-person narrator) explore the themes developed in the stories of the two couples; he also makes it clear that Tomas and Tereza were born of his imagination. I do not find this bothersome--indeed, I feel it adds to story--but my husband didn't like it, and I can understand why.

In short, The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores fascinating, relevant and complex issues without sacrificing a compelling plot or interesting, well-developed characters. The novel is also generally considered a modern classic, and I think that Kundera will one day be named a Nobel Laureate. In my mind, it is a must-read if ever there was one.

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