Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Book Review - The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Friendly philosophy fall-out from Eastern European revolution

Not so much a novel as the Kundera’s seamlessly spliced together philosophical musings, The Unbearable Lightness of Being makes affected people gush that this book can change your life. It can’t. But it will make you think, and think hard. If you liked last month’s Alain de Botton then read this next: Kundera is one of de Botton’s forebears in style and substance, a man influenced by the likes of Rousseau and Nietzsche, and imbued with the electric realities of the revolutionary times in which he wrote. The Unbearable Lightness is both passionate and reserved, alive and yet removed. Published in 1984 in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia where Kundera was born (though the book is more French than Czech in style), it is a diametric work that contrasts bright and dark, lightness and heaviness, the head and the heart. It will leave you floating somewhere between these poles, all the richer for having read it.

The plot is functional for this philosophical purpose and Kundera’s characters never fully develop enough psychological depth to give them personal warmth, but despite this one of the most common responses to The Unbearable Lightness is that readers identify with the four main protagonists. Tomas is perhaps the most outstanding of the quartet. A successful Czech surgeon and rampant womaniser, Tomas falls foul of the communist regime through his misunderstood political articles, and is reduced to washing windows. He boasts hundreds of mistresses, but clinically separates these sexual misadventures from his honest love of his wife, the downtrodden Tereza. Tereza only fully comprehends the extent of Tomas’s adultery when she identifies the strange odour emanating from his hair as the smell of other women’s genitalia. The plot attaches itself to one mistress, Sabina, and follows her to Paris, and through her relationship with another married man, Franz. These, then, are the most substantial storylines of Kundera’s work.

But the characters are merely marionettes to play out sequences that Kundera can apply his ideas to, each carefully prepared with philosophical paintwork that is more significant than the puppet itself. The significance of this modern classic, then, rests on Kundera’s understanding of the human condition as fragile and ephemeral; a lightness of being that weighs each of us down with the passing profanity of our existence. If this seems a little convoluted, don’t worry. Kundera’s brilliance is in his ability to make the most intricate of philosophies not only relevant, but also manageable. Read this book. You might not understand it all, but you’ll certainly be better off for having tried.

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