The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim)

This post contains spoilers.

 [I]t is right to chide man for being blind to … coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

(-from The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

I was recently looking for a birthday present for a close friend. I wanted to give her a book that has meant something to me, and I immediately thought of The Unbearable Lightness of Being – a novel that has stayed with me since I first read it at university about ten years ago. I bought a copy from the international book shop, and after taking it home and flicking through it decided it was about time I re-read Kundera’s novel myself. But when I went back to the shop the next day they had sold out. It can be difficult to find good English books in Phnom Penh, and I was almost ready to give up. I half-heartedly tried the second-hand book store a couple of streets over … and found this edition: IMG_20150611_070213The only Kundera book on the shelf (and half the price of the international book store!) I turned it over and the blurb informed me that the novel was first published in 1984 – making it 30 years old this year, just like me. Coincidences? Yes. But at least no one can chide me for not seeing them.

Set in Czechoslovakia from 1968 to the early 1980s, The Unbearable Lightness of Being charts (among many other things) the relationship between Tomas and Tereza. Tereza (a waitress) falls for Tomas (a divorced surgeon who loves sleeping with many different women) when he smiles at her in a diner. She follows him back to Prague and they start a life together. However, their relationship is constantly tested by Tomas’s infidelities and his insistence that sex is separate from love. Despite this, Tereza and Tomas grow old (and die) together, and – in the end – seem to find a kind of happiness.

This novel is, of course, much more complicated than that. For starters, it is in no way a conventional narrative. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is perhaps best described as postmodern, although Wikipedia calls it ‘philosophical fiction’, a genre I’ve never heard of before but that seems fitting. Kundera’s voice is very much present throughout the book, and he does not disguise the fact that he is using these characters as vehicles for ideas, as a way of exemplifying and sorting out his thoughts:

[C]haracters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about.

But isn’t it true that an author can only write about himself?

The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities.

And Kundera, it seems, is able to imagine an enormous amount of possibilities.

Lightness is a novel of ideas. The plot is secondary, and relatively quiet – a couple struggling with how to love each other, eventually growing old together. The outcome is no surprise – we learn early on that Tereza and Tomas die together in a car crash, and the book’s final pages focus on the couple on holiday in a hotel (in this way it reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things – a novel that could be framed as tragedy but because of its time-jump structure also ends on a note of beauty and hope). The ideas of the novel themselves – while there are many, and while they are all deeply philosophical – are presented so simply and beautifully through these characters and the voice of the narrator; a voice that is not at all intrusive, or judgmental.

In this review of Lightness just after its publication in 1984, John Bayley wonders “[w]hether it will last, whether one will want to read it again”. Its presence on bookshelves all over the world in 2015 (even in Cambodia) is a pretty clear answer. As John Banville notes in The Guardian, while Eastern Europe may have changed drastically since the 1980s, Kundera’s novel still feels relevant. For me, it is the novel’s philosophical ideas that I remember most, and that I keep coming back to. I last read Lightness around 7 years ago, while living in South Korea. At that time I was somewhat obsessed with kitsch, a concept the novel describes as “the ultimate denial of shit”, or a way of thinking that “excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” The ‘cuteness’ of much of Seoul – the cafes, stationery, clothes – seemed to perfectly embody what Kundera was talking about. Two years before that I was on an island in Hong Kong finding solace (after having my heart broken) in Kundera’s meditations on love:

Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? … Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company.

And now – in Cambodia at 30 years old – returning once again to this novel I find myself most captivated by two more of its ideas. The first – lightness and weight, and the second – poetic memory.

(1) Lightness and Weight

[W]hat can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, ‘sketch’ is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.

The older I get, the more I start to feel the weight of responsibility. The pressure to choose – a career, a country, whether or not to have children. Kundera examines this feeling through Tomas (who wants to be light, free, unburdened from all responsibilities) and Tereza (who wants the responsibility of loving Tomas and being with him). He talks about lightness by contrasting it to Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. Our lives, Kundera notes, are one-time-only deals. We don’t have the chance to live them over again; the actions we take now will not be repeated, and therefore are of no importance. Weightless. He talks about weight, on the other hand, in terms of es muss sein, a German phrase that means ‘It must be.’ We all have a mission, a passion, something we must do. Tomas must become a doctor. Tereza must love Tomas. Writers must write. Painters must paint. This is their weight. Kundera wonders which is more valuable – lightness, or weight? Freedom, or responsibility? There is no clear answer.

(2) Poetic Memory

Without realising it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty

Like most twenty-and-thirty-somethings in the 21st century I’ve wondered a lot about meaning, and where it comes from. If God is dead (that’s right, I referenced Nietzsche twice in one post – thank you, Arts degree) and the universe is chaotic, where then do I find my es muss sein? The answer – or at least, the best one I can come to – is that we create it ourselves. Kundera seems to agree, with his idea of poetic memory. We notice coincidences in our lives, draw them together, turn them into metaphors, and create meaning out of them. In this way we are not deluding ourselves, but rather opening ourselves to opportunities for beauty (not unlike the experience I had in Thailand a few weeks ago). When we do this we create poetic memory, and add these moments to the larger story of our lives.

There is so much more to talk about when it comes to this novel. Years from now when I re-read this edition I know I will highlight different paragraphs; different ideas will be discovered and applied to my own life. Richard Flanagan wrote in The Narrow Road to the Deep North:

A good book … leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.

For me, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is that great book.

For some reason, I’ve only read this one book of Kundera’s, though he has written many others, including The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Joke, and Immortality. His latest novel – published this year – is titled The Festival of Insignificance. Milan Kundera is 85 years old, and lives (in exile) in France.


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