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[Book Review] Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'

Thriving on individuality, striving to find even the tiniest commonality// Jabbering to fill a silence, longing for one comfortable enough to leave be// Living at the heart of a busy city, seeking the solitude of the country// Thinking that the grass on the other side is practically golden, looking back from there with homesick eye// Talking of peace while walking towards war// Murdering elephants with a single bullet// Destroyed by bacteria incomparably smaller// Preaching humility, pandering that virtue in front of the world// Imploring for protection of God (any, many), killing to protect the same God’s authority.

In a planet as insignificant as space dust, a species no more significant debates the answers to these.

“Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (Must it be? It must be!)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1984 is a novel written by Czech author Milan Kundera. Set in the tumultuous 60s and 70s during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, it touches upon several themes of existentialism, love, loss and humanity’s ultimate search for meaning.

Narrative Style

The narration of each character’s life is in a stream of consciousness that allows Kundera to dissect his own perspectives. Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, Franz and Karenin represent different aspects of human psychology, held together only by the circumstances of their birth. Their stories never really end because of Kundera's brilliant strategic and artistic decision of a non-linear timeline in writing Unbearable Lightness.

This lends a poetic, bittersweet note aptly described in ‘Einmal ist Keinmal’, a German adage that the text intones time and again, “What happens but once might as well not have happened at all.” In this very statement lies the titular theme - the heaviness and lightness of our being.

Sex and Love; Body and Soul

Sex and Love, Body and Soul - can they be completely removed from each other? Or are they inseparably interlinked? In particular, Tereza’s conflict on the duality of body and soul, her oscillating thoughts on Tomas’s philandering ways, and her love for Karenin take us through the gamut of philosophical notions surrounding these motifs.

They are dissected with scientific detachment, yet the writing is suffused with a brilliant understanding of human emotions; it draws us into the innermost thoughts of the characters while whispering insights about what they represent. This reading experience is startlingly visual, and exceptionally unlike others from an era bygone.

Kundera delves into every story as if it were his own (which, he confesses, they are; for what is a story if not a writer’s reflection of themself?). He explores the psyche of his characters, grips the reader by the hand and walks them right to the door of a different universe, before shutting the door in their face and making them think over what they’ve read.

History, Kitsch and the Quest for a Higher Purpose

The reference to the Basilica of San Clemente might remind one of Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name: every new experience, sensation, love, desire, is built on a foundation of history, of memories. That metaphor extends to every character, every subplot, every story in Unbearable Lightness of Being. Einmal ist keinmal. “The history…is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.” And yet, while it exists, this dust is the very majesty of the Basilica of San Clemente. Kundera shows how life is ‘unbearably light’, and how each of his protagonists struggles to do something bigger than themselves while they live.

Another of the many thought-provoking ideas raised in the text is that of ‘kitsch’. Kitsch, he writes, is “the stopover between being and oblivion...Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch”. Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into someone else’s perception of our Being; we will be trashy art built at the expense of an exaggerated death, and a misunderstood life. And that brings us back to the idea of an unbearable lightness of being: one can be weighed down by burdens of being or its lightness, but in the truest sense, the lightness is what is real. The transience, the ephemeral nature of what seems to be Everything, is Everything, and nothing at all, all at once.

This Night Owl Original has been authored by Smriti Iyer and Pallavi Singh.

Smriti is a creative writer and published poet based in Mumbai; an aspiring filmmaker weaving striking narratives through her words. Pallavi is the co-founder of The Night Owl Writes, where they also serve as the Editor-in-Chief.

Images used are stills from the 1988 movie adaptation of the novel.



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