Hello boys and girls. Before beginning this review proper, I’d like to tell you the story of how I came to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
I was recently perusing the shelves of my local bookshop – knowing that I wanted to buy something, but with no particular book in mind – when the new-snow whiteness of The Unbearable Lightness caught my eye. I remembered that a friend had once recommended the book to me, so I picked up a copy for closer inspection. Turning the book around in my hands to read the all-important “blurb”, I discovered that the back of this copy was impressed with an almost-too-perfect red-lipstick kiss. A quick glimpse over the other copies informed me that this wasn’t merely an evocative and out-of-place aspect of the cover design – the kiss only existed on the copy in my hands. Somebody had walked into the shop (I assume they stealthily ducked and spun around the aisles to avoid the glare of the ubiquitous booksellers), taken this copy off the shelf, turned it around and violated its smooth white innocence with what was obviously a very hard, knowing kiss. Clearly, I had to buy it.
I like to think that whoever is responsible for the kiss has such a depth of feeling for the novel that they couldn’t resist running to their nearest bookshop to root-out a copy and leave a physical mark of their affections on the very paper of the book, permanently staining it (and the mark is permanent) with this signifier of their love.
In my more fanciful moments, I imagine that I’ve inadvertently infringed upon the activities of a secret and covert book club. The bibliophile members of this club are so enigmatic and shady that they never reveal their identities – not even to each other. Thus they are forced to communicate via an obscure and esoteric system of signs that they leave in public bookshops – distortions of the pages and ink of novels, the significance of which is known only to the members of the club. The red lipstick kiss is one such cypher. By buying this copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I might have interfered with the workings of this elite reading group in a cataclysmic way. Maybe I’m now inextricably tied-up with a clandestine book society. Maybe I have to leave my own enigmatic mark on a book of my choosing, ready for the society to interpret and pass judgement over. Maybe this goes all the way to the president. Maybe my life is in danger…
Either that, or I’ve really fucked up somebody’s birthday treasure hunt!
Anyway – on to business. The Unbearable Lightness of Being follows the lives of Tomas (a Czechoslovakian surgeon), his wife Tereza and his mistress Sabina during the Prague Spring of 1968 and the turbulent years that followed the event. Thus, from a distance, the novel is somewhat similar to another I recently reviewed: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. Both are, essentially, fictional love-stories posited against the backdrop of real-world moments of political upheaval. Thankfully, it is here that the similarities end (if you’ve read my review of The Museum of Innocence, you’ll know I didn’t look at all favourably on the novel).
At heart, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the story of how three very different people attempt (and repeatedly fail) to reconcile their differing views of love. Tomas, for example, has promiscuous sex with as many women as possible, but he is only in love with one woman – his wife. For Tomas, love and sex are distinct and separate entities, and he has no moral scruples about loving one woman while having sex with many:
Tomas came to a conclusion: making love with a woman, and sleeping with a woman, are two separate passions, not merely different, but opposite. Loves does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).
By contrast, Tomas’ wife Tereza believes in marital fidelity – she loves her husband and blames herself for his womanizing life-style. Her despair in life comes from an unresolved personal mind-body dualism; she believes that Tomas loves her soul, but not her body. This fundamental difference in sexual behaviour is the conflict that underpins the entire novel – there’s a heartbreaking pathos forged out of the relationship between Tomas and Tereza; their great depth of feeling is persistently tested by their irreconcilable views of sex.
The third major protagonist is Sabina, an artist with an unusual take on the concept of ‘betrayal’. Sabina feels oppressed by her parochial ancestry and the artistic limitations imposed on her by the communist occupation. As a result she deliberately distorts – in a highly visual manner – the everyday objects that surround her. One particularly memorable scene has Sabina straddling a mirror on the floor of her studio, completely naked except for her father’s bowler hat. This serves as her own personal deconstruction of her father’s puritan legacy and turns the conservative image of the bowler hat into a symbol of her sexual emancipation.
But I don’t want to rant on about the characters too much, because by far the most interesting voice in the novel is that of the narrator. Although he is never formally named, he speaks with a first-person identity and possesses an intimate knowledge of the characters and their actions. It’s probably safe to assume that the voice of the narrator is actually the voice of Milan Kundera himself.
This narrator is the source of a great deal of comedy in the novel – for no sooner than a scene is over does the narrator immediately start to critique the action. He often criticises the characters, their behaviour and even, in some brilliantly observant and hilarious acts of humility, the actual writing of the novel.
This creates an unusual reading experience. It’s almost as if Kundera wrote two books – one of them a novel, the other a harsh yet humorous critique of the novel. He then mashed them together into one coherent volume, so that the reader receives a running-commentary on the events of the book as they occur. My description probably doesn’t do it justice, but I assure you, this works brilliantly well.
Further to his practical criticism, the narrator also engages in long philosophical speculations; this is what really sets the novel apart from all others that I’ve read. The philosophy is relevant and enlightening, yet simultaneously very tongue-in-cheek. The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins by challenging and dismissing Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return (the concept that everything occurs and recurs ad infinitum), but then the novel constantly replays the same scenes over and over to the reader – albeit from different perspectives. “Irony”, I sang.
The narrator will open up a philosophical discussion by defining his terms in a charming, idiosyncratic manner. These terms will then recur throughout the novel. As the narrator introduces more and more concepts into his discussion, the language of the text becomes more and more esoteric. So much so that, by the end of the novel, there is such a breadth of specific terminology being used that the final fifty pages or so would barely make any sense to somebody who hasn’t read the first few hundred. In other words, Kundera develops his own secret philosophical lexicon and shares it with the reader. This successfully creates a unique feeling of intimacy between narrator and reader, who share a common language, unknown to anybody else, exclusive to this narrator-reader relationship.
The novel’s philosophy is as broad in scope as it is focused in linguistic detail. Kundera rigorously analyses what it means to ‘be’ in the world by exploring some unusual but striking contrasts. Sex is examined through multitude, not intimacy. Politics is explored through love and marriage. There’s even a long, very funny and thought-provoking attempt to reconcile the act of being God with the fact of shit. The narrator even muses, as I’ve glossed , on the creative operational aspects of writing:
Characters are not born like people, of women; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered, or said something essential about.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a wonderful book. It’s tragic and moving yet charming, funny and self-aware. Pathos and philosophy, comedy and culture criticism all merge seamlessly and with intelligence. If I was forced to draw any criticism against it, it would be that the narrator is significantly more interesting than any of the characters, but this is a very minor complaint. At worst you might argue that the book is merely a love-story masquerading as philosophical didacticism; at best The Unbearable Lightness of Being may inspire you to re-assess what it means to be in love, be in work, be political; in fact, you may find yourself questioning what it means to ‘be’ in the world altogether.