Monday, December 1, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happend at all. If we only have one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.

I started my review of Lolita by saying that I was really unqualified to talk about the book in any sort of meaningful way. It was dense, complex, often over my head, and completely enjoyable. I feel roughly the same way about The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The difference being that I didn't like it nearly as much as I liked Lolita. And in my way of thinking, the books do share some similarities. Both could be described as a novel of ideas. Both of their stories have a dreamlike quality to them. And both of the books deal with sex. Sex was the underlying theme of Lolita, however, it was Humbert Humbert's lust that was on display, not his acts of sex. But in Lightness, sex is front and center and standing at attention. While the book itself is about something much bigger, sex is the driving force behind much of the storyline.

The novel is set in Prague in the 1960s, around the time of the invasion by the USSR. Tomas is a highly successful Czechoslovakian surgeon who looses his job for not towing the line of the Communist Party. His wife Tereza is a politically active photographer. There are two secondary characters, Tomas's mistress Sabina and Sabina's married lover Franz. The story revolves around the intertwined lives of these four people.

I have been thinking about how to describe this book for a while now, and the best I can do is that it is a like a licentious fairytale. But while the inherent moral of most fairytales is that love conquers all, the moral of Lightness is that life is ephemeral. Take this passage in which Franz is trying to figure out if he should leave his wife for his mistress: "Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can only make one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions." If each of us only has only one life to live, then does not that life take on a certain degree of lightness? Kundera's characters have little epiphanic bursts throughout the novel where they seem to grasp -- or at least grasp at -- at this concept. It is when they are most happy, most content with there life. And why not? By its very nature this concept is not burdensome, but liberatingly light.

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