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The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera

General fiction

In his story of irreconcilable loves and infidelities, Kundera addresses himself to the nature of 20th-century "Being".

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Milan Kundera

Kundera’s most famous novel is a complex book. Set against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the story evolves around different fictional topics but could just as well be the story of real people. A man torn between thought and emotion, between love and lust. A woman who lives for rebellion. Another whose body is simply an amplifier for her emotions. Tomas, the male protagonist, falls in love with Teresa and marries her, while still having many one-night stands in an attempt to give weight (meaning) to his life. Moreover, he maintains a love-affair with Sabina. 

   Teresa is aware of Tomas' adulteries and cannot bear the situation, which manifests itself in numerous detailed nightmares illustrating the realities of life. For Teresa, love and sex go together, whereas Tomas believes that having sex without love is possible. The female protagonist therefore suffers from the heaviness of life, while her male counterpart feels the unbearable lightness of being. Teresa later tries to gain this lightness for herself. Most of us carry the heavy and the light, the expression of either part depending on our character and circumstances. For that reason, one can identify with Teresa as well as Tomas and Sabina too. 

   Kundera led me to understand that the "specialness" of relationships is not really held in the place that we tend to think it is nor manifests itself in the way that we wish. That love is not what we think it is and unfortunately can sometimes only be gained through situations that we would otherwise find abhorrent if not consumed with these feelings. Sex and love are so intimately joined that it is very difficult to distinguish between the two. Tereza stayed with Tomas knowing he spent most days and nights in another woman’s arms because she loved him, and therefore would suffer anything for him. For her, sex and love were the same thing and that is what tormented her but at the same time made her stay. Is Tereza’s acceptance weakness or a pessimistically hopeful attempt to gain love through persistence and loyalty? 

   The very fact that they stay together and seem to find some degree of happiness illustrates that an acceptance of a relationship that falls well short of satisfying and fulfilling hopes, is possible. Is Tomas and Tereza's tolerance of their imperfect love, their acceptance of where they have arrived at simply a reflection of the fact that you can't change the strong’s oppression of the weak? You may hate it, as Tereza hates Thomas' infidelity, but you have to accept it and move on. However, this suggestion that change can only be incremental (at best) and that basically everyone must cope with life, however awful, must be rejected. Life without dreams is no life at all, but perhaps this is the very point that Kundera was trying to portray. 

   Kundera plays with opposites: life and death, heaviness and lightness throughout his story. The reader can try to decide which life is happier: the light or the dark? What is "The Unbearable Lightness of Being?" It is the realization that, with no hope of knowing the right path from the wrong, there can be no wrong path. One is necessarily absolved of mistakes. The search for meaning in life leans towards the necessity of significance, which comes from a sense of weight. Are events forgiven in advance because they happen only once? But, is it also not unbearable that events only occur once as we can never go back and rectify our mistakes? Everyone wishes they could replay a past error; a lost opportunity, a lost love, a relationship that should not be. Is this not unbearable?! Is this not a weight we feel pressing down on us every day?

   The novel is an attempt to identify what makes us need companionship in life so badly, trying to understand the relationships between the conflicting desires that humans possess and act upon. What makes a man leave the woman that he loves and is perfectly happy with and seek something intangible in the arms of a mistress? Why does the same man sacrifice everything he has - freedom, social status, and his life's work - only to go back to the same woman he absolutely had to leave before? Is the absence of any responsibilities and ties in life really a "lightness"? Could this absolute lightness turn into absolute emptiness and thus become unbearable at some point - a burden pulling us to the ground? It shows how vulnerable we are, and how miserable we can be made by our contradictory desires, aspirations and impulses. If you read deep enough into this novel you’ll repeatedly think, ‘he’s talking about me’. 

"How can life ever be a good teacher if there is only one of them to be lived? How can one perform life when the dress rehearsal for life is life?"

Book review by Eugene Knight the big site