Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera book cover
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) is a philosophical novel concerned with existentialism and Nietzschean theories. Much of the plot centres around the Prague Spring of 1968 and the communist years that followed, tracing the lives of four major characters; Czech surgeon Tomas and his wife, Tereza, one of Tomas’s lovers, Sabina, and later one of Sabina’s lovers, Franz. However, the plot is sparse and secondary to the exploration of the novel’s central themes of love and miscommunication, being and lightness.

An assuredly postmodern novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being breaks from narrative tradition featuring neither a linear plot nor fully rounded characters, instead providing a series of episodes in the characters lives interspersed with the author’s philosophical ruminations. This fragmented structure is used to suggest the mayhem of modern life, leaving the author as the only reliable voice within the novel. Despite this the lives of Kundera’s characters are significant, with the oppression and lack of choice under the communist regime compared to the suffocating determinism of life and lack of meaningful choice on a wider scale. In relation to aspirational politics, the novel sets forward the idea that the world’s ills are all born from the desire for a utopian ideal, and is full of similarly intriguing paradoxes.

Though The Unbearable Lightness of Being deals predominantly with the human condition Kundera does not over-sentimentalise humans. Indeed, as a fierce advocate of animal rights much of his discourse is underpinned by the idea that humans can claim no superiority over the natural world, that essentially they are not special or significant in any substantial way.

Whether through translation or by design the language is plain and uncomplicated, the sentences sharp and without flair. The narrative is consistently punctuated by Kundera, as the narrator, commenting on his own creations (the story, the characters) - his intrusions analogous to the government’s interference in citizen’s lives. As the novel progresses one becomes increasingly attuned to Kundera’s turn of phrase and philosophical reasoning, leading to a greater understanding of his arguments as a whole, and lessening the grating effect of the dispassionate prose.

Remarkably, given the backdrop, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, has not aged greatly. Modern readers may find some of the philosophy unexceptional and at times contradictory or slightly off the mark, but the essence of being doesn’t change, and the novel captures its texture superbly. The over-arching discussion of weight and lightness, of living a burdened or an inconsequential life, is left open, with characters demonstrating the advantages and disadvantages of each path. In a work littered with beautifully described paradoxes one is given no answers, only ever expanding questions.

It took me a while to get into the rhythm and the language of the book, but once I did I appreciated the philosophical musings all the more. It won't be for everyone, but personally I enjoyed it despite finding a few of the points a little dubious.


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14 comments:

Kenna said...

This is a very good review. This is the first time I'm reading your blog and you're very good. This is my favorite book, thank you for stopping by my blog too ;)

bibliofreak said...

Many thanks Kenna, I really enjoyed your blog too. Particularly chuckled at the 'ctrl + s' strapline. Hope you enjoy future reviews, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Meena said...

Thts a v interestng review!

Petra said...

So I'm slowly going through all your reviews, and finally I got to Kundera.
And well I have issues with him. I mean I quite enjoyed Laughable Loves, but when it comes to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I couldn't even finish it, because the female character was driving me crazy. I just couldn't stand that she so passively accepted his cheating on her, even though she wasn't the type who could bear this at all. But that was years ago, now I'm a bit older and wiser (haha), and I need to re-read it for school. So this time it's going to be better, I hope.
Anyway, I like his style of writing a lot.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

It's something I struggle with in fiction generally. Everyday, women (and men) compromise on their own beliefs or wishes to be with someone who appears to be causing them more pain than pleasure. I find it hard to understand why people do this in real life, and am equally as baffled by it in fiction. That's not to say I can't see how it happens, but I think it's hard to predict who/when/why it will happen.

Petra said...

Exactly. It's normal to make some compromises, but when it goes against who you are and what you believe in, and it causes you more pain than pleasure, I just can't see the point. On the other hand it's true that it's not very easy to stand up and say "Sorry, not what I want" and walk away. But still.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

It's interesting though. What is it about Tereza that makes you think she is the sort that wouldn't put up with being mistreated by a man?

Petra said...

I don't remember it exactly. I guess she felt safe with him, at least that's what it seems to me from the way she clung to him. She's a bit of a weakling, needing him, being hurt by his behaviour, but not strong enough to do anything about it. Anything at all.
But I read it 5 years ago, and didn't finish it, so probably I forgot some things.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I think the points you make are probably the reasons I am willing to believe she would allow a man to cheat on her. There is a weakness to her character, a willingness to compromise.

Petra said...

Oh, I see, it seems like I said in the first comment that she wouldn't tolerate it. But I only meant that she (extremely) didn't like being mistreated (not that anyone likes that), but accepted it anyway. And it is because, exactly, she's weak. And that just drives me crazy :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Haha, I understand. I can see how that would be very irritating.

By the way, do you read this in the original or a translation? It would be really interesting to know how the book reads in Czech.

Petra said...

Very :)

In Czech, but I was actually thinking that maybe for the class I should read the English translation. And then compare it with the original :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Yes, that would be really interesting. I'm never sure how much of the style is down to the writing and how much the translation.

Petra said...

I know, there are always some things lost in translation (good movie!). I wish I could read everything in original :)