Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of those stories that contributes to the reader's life story as much as it does to the lives of the characters within it. Anam Sufi elaborates...
Usually I am not one to bolster sales of overly romanticised works of fiction, simply owed to the fact that I prefer my literary fixes raw and reflective of reality. Saying this, I won’t be swaying from my principles today either. Milan Kundera’s post-modernist novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is a book I would recommend to anyone and everyone, due to its far-reaching universality in terms of capturing the fragile divides that separate love, lust, desire, care, and companionship.
Set in Prague in the late 1960-70s, the plot is an artistic tapestry that weaves together the context of Czech society during the Communist period, from the Prague Spring to its invasion by the Soviet Union in 1968, with the private lives of Tomas and his wife, Tereza. Tereza is a photographer who is suffers great angst as the result of her husband’s infidelities, one of which involves the free spirited, Sabina. Thrown into this cocktail of adultery is the other lover of Sabina, a Swiss university professor, Franz. While the tangled romances, fleeting and of substance, may sound chaotic, what qualifies this book to be acknowledges as a work of art is Kundera’s ability to striate the story with increasing levels of complexity, allowing the reader to follow the plot with harmonious ease.
Readers unwittingly submit themselves to the plight of Tereza as she struggles to cope with the philosophical polarity that exists between her and her husband, in terms of sex and love; the body and the soul; lightness and weight. Saying this, complexity is added to the narrative in the way in which Kundera displays the counter perspective of Tomas. We do not deny the fact that he is madly in love with his wife, but his penchant for adultery and exploring the female gender through sexual escapades is explained in a way that almost appeases the act and makes his infidelities beautiful. As much an advocate for female empowerment as the next woman, I don’t say such things lightly. After all, cheating is wrong, and no one has the right to break someone else’s psyche so entirely. However, in this case, my passion for literature wins out, as Kundera projects his linguistic mastery through the construction of two people, who are ultimately not subjects to be judged, rather people to be observed.
In this way, I believe Tereza and Tomas deserve a place in literature alongside Romeo & Juliet, Othello & Desdemona, Florentina & Fermina, and Anna Karanina & Count Vronsky. Their relationship is largely stripped of the extraneous grandiose kitsh that often accompanies romantic novels, and focuses instead on what has become a very common dilemma in contemporary reality; the dichotomisation of the body from the soul, and the compartmentalisation of emotion (as oxymoronic as that sounds).
This novel deals with themes of love, loss, trust, lust, and companionship, but should not be reduced to what these terms have been commodified to mean over time. Kundera taps into the essence of what each is, exploring the depths of experiences that revolve around each emotion.
Ultimately, for anyone seeking a read that teeters on the edge of philosophy but simultaneously defines what might arguably be perceived as the indefinable, this is an iconic read that should not slip between your shelves. Here is where I might add, rather beg of you, please don’t choose to watch the film adaptation (yep, unfortunately there is one) over the book itself. The precision of language in this one is what elevates the story to its magical lair.