In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book of moderate length, Kundera provides a richness of content out of all proportion to its length. He achieves this by a use of narrative loops. These loops cover areas that are approximately the same but with each cycle of narration the details become different and the narrative track assumes different directions. There is an increase in poignancy as the book progresses. It is as if we had circled around the narrative and are ever coming into more precise focus.
Reviewed by Bob Williams
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera
Perennial Library, 1987
First published Harper and Row US, 1984
ISBN 0-06-091465-3, 314 pp, $8.95
The year of publication means something all by itself. The other great book on the subject of totalitarian states was Orwell’s 1984. But Orwell’s book, great as it is, was a handbook on the subject. Kundera’s book was the thing itself. Literature from Central Europe is largely unknown and thus rather exotic. Its works of the nineteenth century served the purposes of nationalism and shared the defects of a colonized culture – preoccupation with local problems and imitation of foreign literary models. Under the influence of modernism provincial modes collapsed. Formerly marginalized colonies produced formidable writers such as James Joyce in Ireland and Jaroslav Seifert and Milan Kundera in the former state of Czechoslovakia. The conjunction of the names of Kundera and Joyce is appropriate. Both were exiles from their native land and both fantasized about the destiny that would have been theirs had they not been exiles. They both pursued innovative literary forms and expanded the resources of the novel.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book of moderate length, Kundera provides a richness of content out of all proportion to its length. He achieves this by a use of narrative loops. These loops cover areas that are approximately the same but with each cycle of narration the details become different and the narrative track assumes different directions. There is an increase in poignancy as the book progresses. It is as if we had circled around the narrative and are ever coming into more precise focus. There is in this as in the innovations of Joyce a show of creative willfulness. Kundera does not begin his book with narration. He begins with a contemplation of Nietzsche. The doctrine of the Eternal Return he describes as the heaviest of burdens. He contrasts it with the doctrine of Parmenides who found merit in lightness. Throughout the book each of its sections after the initial one will be a kind of Eternal Return and all events and states will be seen in the contrast between the views of Nietzsche on the one hand and of Parmenides on the other.
Although it violates the book to undo the narrative loops, the plot is very simple when reduced to its sequential basis. Tomas, a gifted surgeon with a promising future, fills in for his senior medical officer and undertakes to perform surgery in a provincial town. Here he meets Tereza, a waitress at his hotel. He returns to Prague and Tereza, repulsed by the grossness of her mother and the ugliness of the life that she is forced to lead in her mother’s home, soon comes to Prague. She calls on Tomas who takes her in. They make love. Tomas is divorced from his wife and he has renounced the privilege of visiting their son. This costs him the respect of his parents. They renounce him. As a bachelor he pursues women endlessly and with enormous success. He continues to do so even after Tereza comes to live with him. Both of them are very bookish and Tomas, having given Tereza Sophocle’s Oedipus to read, elaborates an explanation of it in terms of Russian-dominated Czechoslovakia. A liberal paper prints a truncated version of his essay. Sabina, a lover of Tomas has found work for Tereza on a newspaper as a darkroom assistant. She proves her ability to such good purpose that she is promoted to photographer and in the process of learning her art becomes a good friend of Sabina. The Russians, alarmed at signs of restiveness in Czechoslovakia, invade the country. Tereza takes pictures of the event and sends them out with foreign journalists as they depart the troubled country. This becomes an incriminating circumstance for Tereza, as does the Oedipus essay for Tomas. They are now married and flee with their dog Karenin to Switzerland where Sabina has preceded them. She and Tomas resume their relationship. Tereza, alone in a strange land, decides to leave Tomas and returns to Czechoslovakia. After a few days of hesitation, relief and despair he follows her. Nationals may return but the border is closed to those seeking escape. The Communist power is brutally in force and the border becomes the walls of a totalitarian prison. Tereza is once again a waitress, one threatened by a belligerent police agent. Tomas is driven from his profession and at last becomes a window washer. His infidelities continue to torment Tereza. In an odd and sinister gesture he sends her to Petrin Hill. Here she finds assassins who grant the gift of death to all who wish it. She almost succumbs but wrests herself away at the last moment.
In Switzerland Sabina has become the mistress of Franz, an academic. He is married to a repulsive woman and has fathered on her an equally repulsive daughter. He and Sabina are not a good pair and the constant inability of the one to understand the other undermines their life together. When Franz leaves his wife, Sabina leaves him, a betrayal in a series of the betrayals that have made up her life. Franz, in a mistaken idea that he is being true to the memory of Sabina, undertakes a quixotic trip to Cambodia. Here hoodlums inflict injuries that lead to his paralysis and death. Before he dies he learns that his wife, one of the nastiest figures in all literature, has appropriated him. At about the same time Sabina, conscious of the inroads that death has made on those she holds dear, stipulates that on her death she shall be cremated and her ashes scattered. Lightness again forms a potent motif. Tomas and Tereza have left Prague to live in the country where they are no longer subject to the molestation of the authorities or the ugliness of life that has become the norm in Prague. Their idyllic life suffers a catastrophe. The dog Karenin becomes sick and dies. Kundera spares us nothing of the pain including the indifference of those who see the dog as just a dog.
In the death of Karenin Kundera encapsulates the heart wrenching nature of life, the basic sorrow that rips everything apart. Not long after this Tomas and Tereza go to a neighboring town. They dance and drink with their friends. They go alone to their hotel room. They are at last at peace with themselves and each other. We know, because of the narrative loops, that this is the last night of their lives, that tomorrow they will die in an accident. The ending is quiet. Since we have already mourned for Karenin, no more needs to be said. Any death, rightly comprehended, tells us all that we need to know of death or, for that matter, of life. The author is intrusive. He disclaims any special knowledge. He refuses to be privileged simply because he tells the story. He sets up a complicated narrative structure to cast us as the readers into the role of creative participants. He uses his position of authority to open for us a wider concept of what we examine. He does as much for us as he can but insists that we work out what he shows us for ourselves. All great works take us in and make us more than we were aware of. This novel, written with the freedom of a great writer at the peak of his power, does all this on a scale that is exceptional and unforgettable.
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About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: