The first time I read a Kundera novel was Summer of ’14. It was a raggedy water logged paperback. I had found it while unpacking in my new place in Broadmoor, and set it on the balcony to dry. A guest we had from Chicago remarked that Unbearable Lightness of Being was his favorite love story.
So naturally, I had to think twice about it. A Czechoslovakian love story didn’t exactly appeal to me as, really, I’m into the more dark humor approach from the likes of Bret Easton Ellis (my favorite author). Naturally, there’s always a love story buried in every book, but I’m more inclined to read the ones where one of the partners dies some tragic drug riddled death. Anyway, all prejudices aside, I picked up Unbearable Lightness of Being.
I couldn’t put the book down until I finished it. Just as the titular titles suggests, the book explores the conundrum of lightness and heaviness, when lightness can become unbearable, and heaviness can seem comforting. The book primarily focuses on womanizer Tomas, a Czech surgeon, and his relationship with his wife Tereza. This is intertwined through various narratives with Sabina, a care-free painter, and her affair with Swiss lecturer Franz.
I would hate to ruin the precepts and consequences of these relationships for you, but what I can say is Kundera’s version of a love story really, truly is the saddest, most thought provoking way one can approach it. Reading it makes you almost question monogamy, encourages you to view physical love as noble as the love of wanting to simply sleep next to another… In a way, our protagonist Tomas is any successful womanizer we know, yet we sympathize with him. Something I always found fascinating about Slavic authors is they make something so morally dehumanizing beautiful. Just like Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert, Kundera’s Tomas is a man we should hate. Tereza’s longing for a man who routinely leaves her emotionally and physically is sort of reflective of that girl who we always try to convince that she is “so much better than him! There’s so many more fish in the sea!”
And yet, Tereza quips during her narrative, “Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand love from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand free and asking for nothing but his company.” This love story, like all love stories fictional and non, contains so much under the surface than meets the eye. Who are we to judge when Tereza goes back with a monologue like that?
Of course, the book is more than a love story. It’s set in 1968, a shaky time in Czechoslovakia to say the least, and if I was any bit a history buff I would surely be impressed by all the Slavic history of the decade. Then a uniting character for all the protagonists, a dog named Karenin (after Alexei Karenin from Anna Karenina, of course, I love how all these Slavic authors reference each other!) provides a little comic relief. Or perhaps just relief, considering all of the human calamity surrounding little Karenin, it’s nice to occasionally reference a dog who is “deathly afraid of change”.
I would definitely recommend the book, don’t even bother watching the movie. (Kundera actually nixed any film adaptions of his works after the sad attempt starring Daniel Day-Lewis).