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.