Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

I want to open this review by saying that I am absolutely not qualified to review a Milan Kundera novel. His books are complex, multilayered and amazingly evocative, none of which I have to skills to capture in my brief 300 word "this is what I liked" book review posts. So, rather than posting a proper review, I am going to write about some general thoughts I had upon reading Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Milan Kundera is one of those writers I think just about every cultural studies student discovers for the first time in their second year. I can't even remember which class had The Unbearable Lightness of Being on its reading list but once I read it I was a Kundera convert. It was so smart! So cleverly constructed. So elegantly written. So fascinating and (best of all for your standard 20yo Arts student wanker) so very quotable. I frequently dropped into conversation (and even class, such was my a complete wanker thing to do) such nuggets of obnoxiousness such as, "That reminds me of the observation Milan Kundera made in The Unbearable Lightness of Being about Freud's theory of dreaming." I was such a cliche! But, while I regret being so obnoxious, I don't regret the time I spent reading, thinking about and absorbing the work of Kundera.

The story contained within Unbearable is hard to explain clearly. It opens with a philosophical discussion of Nietsche's conception of eternal return as the heaviest burden. This begins the discussion of the concepts of lightness and heaviness and their relationship to goodness, sadness, happiness, meaning and burden that recurs throughout the book. This section also introduces the author as a character of the book, an "I" who had family killed in the Holocaust yet felt strange empathy with the watercolours of Hitler, the engineer of his family member's demise. Tereza, a barmaid in a small town, turns up on the doorstep of Tomas, a surgeon, who she met briefly a few weeks ago. They immediately make love and then she becomes very sick, requiring him to look after her and forging the love bond that is the central thread of the the book. While it does centre around the love between Tereza and Tomas, it is about so much more than that. It is set in the Communist-run Czechoslovakia of between 1968 and 1980 and much of the book deals with life in Czechoslovakia. It is these sections from which I learned the most but, at the same time, made me feel most inadequate because I know so little about that time and the politics of it.

The structure of the novel is postmodern. It jumps between timeframes and perspectives; diegetic events and philosophical explorations. Kundera often addresses the reader directly, for example to explain the inspiration for the characters. It is chaotic but it works - Tomas is an compulsive cheater. One of his mistresses is Sabina, a painter, who becomes involved with Franz, an academic. Each of them is affected by their upbringing in ways that are central to their character; for example, Teresa was punished by her mother for being the reason that she (her mother, the most beautiful of women) was forced to marry the most manly of men, who deliberately ignored her whispered requests to be careful when making love. Teresa's decision to stay with a man who cannot be faithful is influenced by her mother but never solely attributed to it. Just as important as her mum are the beautiful coincidences that cause one to fall in love - the music playing on the radio at the moment you first meet, the shared interest in books and the simple happenstance of being in the right place at the right time.

I don't know if you can tell but I love this book. The urge to quote it at dinner parties has (thankfully) left me but I was unable to shake the feeling that I should be taking notes so I don't forget a thing. I enjoyed reading this book such a lot I cannot wait for the new one (Festival of Insignificance) to arrive at my library. Five ardent-Arts-student stars.

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