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March 9, 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Book Review)

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I recently read this novel by Milan Kundera, written in ’82, published in ’84, and I was very impressed by it. One of the former colleagues of my Master’s Degree recommended it to me last year and I’m glad that she did. It’s a marvelous book. It’s slow, but very real, very philosophical and very well written. Kundera’s intent is on exploring the unbearable lightness of being, that is, the fact that things are fleeting, will never happen again, and, if the human race goes extinct, may as well have never happened at all.

He uses four primary characters – two womanizers, a mistress and a wife – to explore whether this lightness can lead to joy just as easily as it leads to angst and the feeling of constantly falling down the hole of nothingness. And, of course, morally speaking, if not even the “good” matters in such an existence, then how can its opposite?: “For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine” (p. 4).

The book goes back and forth in time. The tragic death of the two main characters is made known about mid-way, so that the prospect of death is always ominously looming over head in every scene that involves them and the unwinding of their lives, which, although they have been through a lot, now only mean anything substantial to the two of them, and even that substance is impermanent as well, just like everything else.  It takes place during Communist Russia’s stronghold over Czechoslovakia and emphasizes much of what was happening in ’68 and the years to follow, so the book is very political as well, and discusses what Kundera refers to as “kitsch,” which is pretty much exactly what Ernest Becker refers to as the causa sui project in The Denial of Death, one of my most cherished books ever, which he won the Pulitzer Prize for in ’74, but couldn’t collect it, because he died in March of that year. He wrote it while he was dying, so it is written with his final blast of vitality, fire and strength of mind, and it appears that Kundera was heavily influenced by it, because he discusses matters such as our denial of bodily aspects like waste (due to our bodies representing death and decay), and other things on a grand scale that close down that barrier between spirit and body, “sublime and squalid, angel and fly, God and shit” (p. 261).

The book is very phenomenological and the characters are constantly dealing with the catch-22s of their lives that are hopelessly and ceaselessly plummeting towards the doom of annihilation, just like the rest of us. One of my favourite aspects of the book is the relationship the youngest of the four main characters, Tereza, has with her mother, who, after losing her youth and beauty to the wrong man, raises Tereza as if beauty and the body do not matter at all, nor social propriety of any kind, and, although she spends twenty years trying to ingrain this notion into her very feminine daughter’s head, all she ends up doing is creating a narcissist. She is quite the character indeed. The end of the first introduction to this anonymous woman made me laugh hard. (Kundera has a great, though dark, sense of humour). The effect she had on Tereza mentally and emotionally is profound, and Tereza carries it heavily into her relationship with the main character of the book:  Tomas.

I did not really like the ending; it seemed empty and insipid, but all and all I understand why it is such a classic novel, and I now most humbly recommend it to you – whoever you may be. Enjoy it, if you so choose to delve in.

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