Thursday, 24 September 2009

Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Title: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Author: Milan Kundera

Year: 1984

Rating: 3.5/5

Plot: A novel of irreconcilable loves and infidelities, which embraces all aspects of human existence, and addresses the nature of twentieth-century 'Being'.

Review: I've taken the above synopsis from Amazon's description because, as anyone who's read this novel will tell you, it's hard to summarise what The Unbearable Lightness of Being is about.

At the heart of the novel we have a group of characters whose lives entwine over a period of years. Tomas, the protagonist, is a surgeon living in Prague, renown for his womanising ways and light-hearted take on life. After falling in love and marrying the emotionally vulnerable and naive Tereza, he finds himself trapped between the ongoing desire to explore each and every woman he meets, and remain faithful to his wife.

It was hard for me to hate Tomas: In spite of his philandering ways, I understood his urgent need to take grab life with both hands and float around with it. Having been disappointed with an earlier marriage, he dedicates his life to making the most out of what he can get. Tereza, on the other hand, lives for Tomas: His unfaithful encounters drive her almost insane, and his 'lightness' is the stark contrast to how 'heavy' her love and relationships play a part in her life.

Perhaps it is my own naivety about the world, as I'm still a young adult, that made me empathise and understand Tomas so well - After all, in reality who would tolerate so much infidelity in one relationship? But I found Tereza to be such a pathetic character most of the time. She unknowingly binds herself into these relationships that hurt her (her mother, Tomas, etc.) but refuses to stand tall and discover her own identity.

In contrast to Tereza is Sabina, Tomas' favourite mistress. Sabina is almost the female version of Tomas in that she is the 'lightest' character in the novel: her willingness for freedom (something Tomas craves but can not bring himself to head for) makes her leave her great love, Franz.

While Tomas and Sabina take up the 'lightness' of life, Tereza's mind is 'heavy.' She suffers from nightmares every night, during which she must be soothed and coaxed back to sleep. The only time she finds any kind of identity, anything to be passionate about other than Tomas, is when she snaps pictures of the Communist soldiers during the Soviet takeover in Prague and hands her film over to the international journalists, but even those actions hold a certain naivety about the world.

While this is happening, liberal-minded Tomas openly objects the new government and, such is his lighthearted take on life, finds himself sinking into the lower rungs of society as the novel progresses.

It is Tomas and Tereza's relationship that explores the nature of existence. Through different classes, environments, and political standings in society, the pair are tested on their different outcomes on life. Tomas is eager to fly away with his freedom, but it is Tereza's heaviness that reminds him to stay. Ever since she turned up on his door, he's been left with an image of her as a child being put into a basket and sent downstream to him. It is her naivety and sorrow that attaches him to her, and he resents having the curse of 'compassion' on his shoulders.

While Tomas might have seemed like an unlikeable character to many, I couldn't help feeling my own 'compassion' for him. As I've said, perhaps it is my naive youth, or perhaps it is my history of depression, that has made me scorn Tereza as something I once was, and look at Tomas as something I'd want to strive to be. Though Tomas' exuberance is his eventual downfall (having to give up the one thing he cared about in the world - being a doctor), I'd rather live my life full of passion than full of regret.

I don't ever want to shrug my shoulders and say, with a heaving sigh, "Es muss sein."

I'd recommend this to anyone who likes to read a bit of philosophical fiction. It's far from light (as the title suggests ;-) ) but can work wonders for an internal investigation about your view on life.

This goes towards my Classics Challenge as Book #2.  


Amanda said...

I've got this on my to-read list. I once had a guy let me borrow this in college but I never got around to it. It didn't help that he was a bit creepy...

Ceri said...

Amanda - Haha, how strange. Was he a guy you knew or just randomly bumped into?

Melody said...

This sounds like an interesting read! I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the lovely review, Ceri!

Sarbear said...

Ceri, I commented back to you on my post about Eric Bana : )

serendipity_viv said...

What a fabulous review. I like the way you gave us a little glimpse of your life.

I think I would be very annoyed with Tereza, she would really wind me up.

Anonymous said...

You're a better woman than I! I bought this book a while ago, truly intending to read it, and I made a deal with myself that I was going to list it on Paperbackswap at the end of the spring semester, and read it before fall, when it would inevitably get ordered by a student. And, um, I didn't. It looks all intimidating! But maybe I should get it from the library and try it.

Ceri said...

Melody - Thank you. You're welcome. And I'd definitely recommend it.

Sarbear - I saw ;-) I will reply back too! Mwaha!

Vivienne - Yeah, she *was* annoying. I'm sick of pathetic characters. :P

Jenny - Haha, Everyone I know owns this book but has never tried to pick it up. In fact, the copy I now have was actually my mother's. Once you get past the overwhelming philosophies in the first couple of pages and join the characters, it's a good read. :)

The Bookworm said...

I have this one in my TBR. Great review!

Joanne ♦ The Book Zombie said...

Great review, it makes this book sound a lot more intriguing that the book jacket description! Another one that I must get around to reading soon :)

Ceri said...

Naida - Thank you. :)

Joanne - Thank you. Yeah, the description on my book is pretty lame too. It's definitely one of those 'need to read to appreciate it' ones. :)

Tales of Whimsy said...

I read this many many moons ago and remember loving it. It dealt with infidelity (which isn't a theme I am comfortable with) but I remember it having thought provoking philosophies and quotes.