The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by JDP

This disjointed and somewhat inconsistent novel is a nevertheless profound meditation on interpersonal and political relationships; the writing itself is at times staggeringly beautiful and has been situated in an inventive narrative structure that propels the book forward at a nimble pace.

Milan Kundera / Czech / 1984 / 314 pages
Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim

The opening of Kundera’s most famous novel somehow manages to juxtapose Nietzsche, fourteenth-century African kingdoms, and a number of obtuse philosophical concepts in the space of just a few hundred words. It only takes a handful of additional pages to realize, however, that Kundera intends to play a bit fast and loose with his philosophical musings (as well as his characters, their chronology, and, indeed, the entire narrative structure itself). What ensues is a freewheeling and at times inconsistent account of four people and a sturdy canine trying to make ends meet (“ends” in this case being both financial and emotional) during the Soviet Union’s 1968 occupation of the Czech Republic. Flecked with bits of Calvino, Vonnegut, and Camus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is still a wholly unique book that attempts to wed such disparate subject matter as love, totalitarian government, the passage of time, the meaning of existence, human dominion over animals, and the scientific importance of counterfactual analysis. Keeping in mind that the novel weighs in at a scant 300 sparsely populated pages, you might a priori suspect a certain degree of spasticity in its presentation. Having read the novel, you might conclude that your suspicions were, in a word, correct.

The novel first caught my attention when a professor of mine included it among her list of “recommended readings” for an introduction to Post-Soviet politics class. Some time later a good friend listed it as one of his “close calls” in our Top 50 books project. If I assume the motivations of my professor were historical-instructive and that Brian’s motives were cultural-appreciative, then I believe that the book fulfills both criteria — but only just so.

The Unbearable Lightness is surely an historical novel. Set mostly during the Prague Spring of 1968, the novel charts the ascendency of a new Czech president, Dubcek, and the implementation of his liberalizing reforms. In response to these new policies, Soviet troops invaded the country, established a secret police, and severely cracked down on free speech. I would hesitate to categorize what Kundera writes as “historical fiction” in the same way that, for example, Darkness at Noon or The Feast of the Goat are historical fictions. Kundera draws much less on particulars and situates his characters with less precision in space and time than do Koestler and Vargas Llosa. We are only given enough historical grounding to inform Kundera’s lengthy meditations on totalitarian government, to chart out the changing landscape of Soviet Prague, and, in a handful of instances, to drive the plot.

The novel succeeds more resoundingly on the cultural-appreciative front; that is to say, it succeeds in literary form. For the past few years, I have been hard-pressed to correctly recall the novel’s title and part of the fun of reading it is untangling the meaning of the phrase “the unbearable lightness of being.” Kundera wrote the novel in direct opposition to Nietzsche’s conception of “eternal recurrence” which postulates that our decisions and the events that take place around us are given weight (i.e. meaning, importance, depth, etc.) because they are repeated infinitely. Kundera, by contrast, argues that we have but one life to live, our decisions are our own and, in most cases, are relatively poorly informed. Our existences, then, are “light” insofar as they do not matter in the broader passage of time; this lightness is “unbearable” because it is frustrating. We are not grounded, we are not of consequence, we are insubstantial.

Of course, the social scientist in me is eating this up. What Kundera is basically getting at is the dearth of knowledge and experience that humanity accumulates over time due to our lack of counterfactual exploration. If our lives were laboratories, if our decisions were experimental instead of conjectural, then we could reiterate decisions, replay events, and learn from the alternative. My favorite passage from the novel proceeds thusly: “If Czech history could be repeated, we should of course find it desirable to test the other possibility each time and compare the results. Without such an experiment, all considerations of this kind remain a game of hypotheses.” As a social scientist, I cannot generally replay history or induce experiments in populations of existing people (the roadblocks are both ethical and practical in nature). The lightness of being that Kundera finds unbearable is the same lightness of being that inhibits progress in the social sciences. But for Kundera, the unbearableness runs deeper than hypotheses testing and statistical models.

The Unbearable Lightness is divided into seven “vignettes” (a word choice that I defend along the following lines: each section is largely self-contained, seems to explore different thematic elements, and tends to cultivate its own narrative style). These vignettes are given titles and are broken into very short chapters often numbering upwards of twenty. To this end, the book is an easy read; however, Kundera throws so many narrative wrenches into the proverbial works that insufficiently close readers will be punished. For example, the narrator as author makes a number of appearances with statements (paraphrased) along the lines of “I created these characters out of my own experiences” and “You, the reader, will recall what I said about Tomas in Part I.” When I encounter things like this in a book, I am put on my guard. Why reference the characters qua characters? Why insert yourself into the narrative and remind us that, rather than immersing ourselves in a created world, we are instead kept at arm’s length, admiring a piece of composition in which we are not players? Other authorial innovations include an elliptical plot trajectory where we see the ending of the novel long before we physically get to the last page; a dictionary of words that are understood in different contexts from the male and female side of a relationship; and the heartfelt personification of a dog.

We are at times confronted with scenes that are both surreal and difficult to contextualize within the rest of the novel. Tereza, for example, is led up onto a wooded hillock overlooking Prague where she is voluntarily given the choice of whether or not she’d like to be executed by a firing squad. At another point, she stands in a public park and observes a long chain of colored benches floating down the stream. She is strangely seduced by a patron at a bar where she waitresses and is vaguely aware of a third person (or perhaps a video camera) hidden in the room where they copulate. Further along, dreams mimic reality and reality becomes increasingly oppressive and surreal.

Much is made in the novel of bipolarity: lightness versus weight, urban versus rural, sex versus love, man versus beast, and public image versus private action. I would offer more in the way of analysis if Kundera had offered us, as readers, more in the way of cohesion. It is a difficult novel to synthesize and, to be honest, I held off for several days before writing this review in the hopes that some mega-conclusion would enlighten me about the novelist’s intent. Alas, nothing came. I will, however, wholeheartedly advocate for reading this novel, if for no other reason than the fact that one of the central vignettes in the book (a passage entitled “Words Misunderstood”) is among the most poignant 40 pages of modern literature you’ll ever encounter. I closed the book and stared off into space for a few minutes, dumbfounded by the simplicity of the prose and the precision of the story.

In conclusion, read Kundera for his breadth and his brevity, for his form and his flair. There is beauty yet in the unbearable lightness of our being.

Rating: 7 / 10

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