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Book Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera, translated from the original Czech, is a glorified game of connect the dots. However, unlike the childhood game which reveals a standard image to all players, this novel unveils a figurative picture unique to each reader.

At its core, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” navigates polarities: lightness and weight, mind and body, body and soul, relationships and alliances, music and words, etc. These universal polarities, with which every reader can identify, serve to complicate the lives of the characters in the novel and place the reader in a position to question the basic credence upon which he or she governs their own life: the institution of marriage, the right to privacy, the role of the government, the limits of freedom and more.

The novel is mainly set in 1960s Prague during the former Soviet Union invasion and centers around the lives of an unfaithful husband and doctor, Tomas, and his wife Teresa who is plagued by her husband’s infidelities and the memories of her own past, mainly her less than nurturing mother. As the novel progresses so does the Soviet Union’s grip on the citizens’ lives of Prague with the secret police’s crafty and calculated aim of eliminating, or at least reducing, free thinking. The culture of society is attacked as intellectuals and professionals are fired from their positions, such as Tomas, who becomes a window washer after his anti-communist editorial piece is published in a newspaper. 

 While universal questions dominate the content of this novel, the style in which the information is presented and examined is just as significant. The text is dominated by biblical allusions, musical motifs and the repetition of phrases, most notably “Es muss sein” which means “It must be” in German. The devices not only make the text lyrical to read, but the ability to trace them throughout the novel across each character’s life enriches the text as a whole for the reader. As the invasion of the Soviet Union intensifies and the lives of the characters become more complicated, so does the reader’s relationship to the novel as one finds oneself concerned for the characters, despite the fact that their moral compasses are less than straight.

The narrator plays an instrumental role in the reader’s relationship to the characters by winding in and out of the plot, often using a reverse chronological format, noting the similarities and differences among the characters’ anxieties and pleasures including supporting characters like Sabina, Tomas’ longtime mistress. The narrator also makes long digressions to examine behaviors and thoughts of the characters and this circuitous route creates an intimate feel for the reader, as if the narrator is a guide into the inner workings of the characters’ lives. Furthermore, the narrative text is punctuated with questions, which are often unanswerable, and seem to serve as a place for the reader to pause for introspection and simultaneously seems to grant the reader autonomy to ask their own questions.

While it is difficult to pinpoint one governing principle in a novel that explores so many elements of life, Kundera inserts himself into the novel to provide a guideline: “The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them… The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become. But enough. Let us return to Tomas.” This intercession acknowledges that Kundera is not playing God but rather exploring his own life much like his characters. It also grants permission to the reader to answer his or her own questions about the text and their life, suggesting that how you answer the questions will determine what image you will find once you connect the dots.