The Unbearable Lightness of Being book review
The Prague Spring was a period of mass protests against the Soviet Union, beginning in January, 1968, and continuing until August of that year. For a few months, under the leadership of Alexander Dubček, the citizens of the former Czechoslovakia experienced a liberalization of restrictions on travel, free speech, and the media. On the night of August 20–21, the Kremlin sent in 200,000 Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, and Hungarian troops, along with 2,000 tanks. The reforms were cut back, hard-line Communists reclaimed their positions of power, and Dubček was deposed.
Milan Kundera experienced the invasion first hand. An outspoken advocate of ref0rm communism, he was expelled from the Association of Writers in 1969, his publications were banned, and his books were removed from the bookstores. In 1975 he went into exile in France and became a naturalized French citizen in 1981. He continues to live there and even after the events of the Velvet Revolution of 1989 he has rarely returned to his homeland.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1984, is set against the background of the curtailed protest movement, and so in that way it can be considered a political novel. But it’s also a meditation on the nature of existence, and the unbearable fact that we live our lives only once and can never know where another path might have taken us. This, then, is the “lightness” of being, as opposed to the Nietzschean concept of eternal recurrence, the idea that the universe and its events have already occurred and will recur ad infinitum. And while this lightness is upsetting to some, it is also a source of freedom: if we are here for a short time and then gone forever, life has no meaning and the decisions we make carry no weight.
“The heavier the burden,” Kundera writes, “the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
The characters in the book represent the two opposite ends of the spectrum: light and heavy. The main character, Tomáš, is a surgeon, and a womanizing intellectual. Briefly married in the past, he has no wish to communicate with his ex-wife and has nothing to do with their son. He sees his sexual adventures as a way of keeping himself light, and continues to see other women after Tereza, a pretty young waitress and occasional photographer, comes to live with him. Tereza is a gentle soul who believes in the romantic ideal of a life-long commitment to another person. She’s devoted to Tomáš in spite of her knowledge of his lechery (sorry, but there’s no other word for it) and suffers because of it. To keep her happy he marries her, but the smell of other women permeates his hair and disturbs her sleep. She becomes depressed and has nightmares in which her husband is going to kill her, or humiliate her in front of other women. In one dream she’s buried alive; Tomáš comes to visit her and digs out some of the dirt, but she knows that eventually he will stop coming and she’ll be left to die.
The one constant element of Tomáš’ erotic life is his mistress, Sabina, who embodies lightness, or freedom. Beautiful, talented, and open-hearted, she befriends Tereza and finds her a job as a photographer. When the Soviets invade the city, she, Tomáš, and Tereza flee to Switzerland, but Tereza doesn’t stay long. She returns to Czechoslovakia and is followed, a short while later, by Tomáš. Returning to Prague means giving up his freedom – because of a dissident article he once wrote criticizing the communist regime, they will not be allowed to leave again.
Back home, he’s subjected to pressure by both underground dissidents (in the form of his estranged son) and the authorities, and regards each side as a form of heaviness. Offered the chance to redeem himself by signing a denunciation of his article, he chooses not to sign it, and loses his position as a surgeon as a result. Tereza convinces him to move to the country with her. There, away from Prague, his erotic adventures come to an end. And so, later on, does his life. Driving through the hills one night, their pickup truck hurtles down a steep incline, instantly killing both Tereza and Tomáš.
As for Sabina, who has stayed behind in Geneva, she falls in love with Franz, a university professor. Franz is married and tortured by the thought that he must betray his wife in order to be with Sabina. When he finally leaves his wife in order to be with Sabina, she flees, first to Paris and then to America:
“She had left a man because she felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden, but the unbearable lightness of being.”
I should state right here that my favourite character is not any of these deeply flawed human beings but a dog. Karenin is Tereza and Tomáš’ pet, although she bonds more closely with Tereza, keeping her company when Tomáš is off having adventures. Like her owners, she finds peace and contentment in the countryside, making friends with Mephisto, a pig, Unlike the humans in the story, Karenin is capable of steadfast loyalty and unconditional love. Her death from cancer is to me the one truly poignant note in a book I found cerebral and austere.