Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Being By Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
By Milan Kundera
First Published: 1984
ISBN: 0571135390
Publisher: Faber and Faber/1999
Pages: 305

This is my fourth book by Milan Kundera. The other three being 'Laughable Lovers', 'Identity' and 'Immortality'. I had read this book sometime back but got around writing a review only now. You can check out the review of Identity here.

‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is mainly the story of a Prague physician, Tomas, who escapes with his wife Tereza, to Zurich after the Russian invasion in 1968. When his unfaithfulness compels her to leave him and return to Prague, he follows her, knowing there would be no other chance to escape Communism. Tomas loses his license to practice medicine because of an editorial he had published in an anti-Communist newspaper. He can only get a job of a window washer. Much to his amazement, he is happy for a while in a job where he does not have to think (‘it’s a terrific relief to realize you're free, free of all missions’).

Written in 1984, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is both a product of its era and a timeless work of art. It makes us wonder whether life is difficult because it is heavy, or the transitory nature of it makes us too light to make a mark..

This is not a novel with a well-etched plot. In fact, it ponders over certain philosophies. When living under oppressive rulers-is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death? What is the nature of love? Have you ever read the philosophy of excrement or kitsch? History is the same, he says, as light as individual human life. There is no option of judgment of chances either in history or in life.

In the very first chapter, the author introduces the concept of opposites that exist in life, lightness and weight. Light individuals foster the idea that, since we live our lives only once, events are futile, and/or carry no major implication. They do not feel bitter about the weighty, as that too would be onerous and over-analytical. However, those who are weighted, find a sense of purpose in every action, life's transience does not matter. Nonetheless, even the weighty ones find their own being too pedantic, and need to get away.

These tensions serve as backdrop for Tomas's and Tereza's marriage. Paradoxically, this very conflict seems to bond them together, not with intimacy, but for needing both lightness and weight. Told from the point of view of four different characters (Tomas, his wife Tereza, his mistress and the mistress' other boyfriend), the story unfolds in a slow paced but very satisfying way. Their lives waver but each one of them tries to find happiness in their own way. Kundera wrestles with the ideas of misapprehension, indecision, and human weakness, through these characters

Though, the novel conveys the realities, which etches people’s lives, the reader at times is left in a suspended illogicality, unable to determine what is right, and what is wrong. However, a clever narration, told in an interesting manner dispels most of his misgivings.