To say what the book is about is like trying to capture a conflagration in a glass jar; it escapes farther afield; it displays a new dimension; it teases and is lambently in a number of places at once. It is impossible of definition. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, at one level, about Czechoslovakia in the sixties, the period during and after the Russian occupation, Czechoslovakia as mirrored in the lives of a tiny handful of intellectuals, the suffocation in their abilities, and their final dwindling into nonexistence through social disuse and frustration. It is not a bitter book but tender and brimming with long-suppressed tears. At another level, it is about love, the recalcitrant celebration of the love of Tomas for Tereza, Tereza’s for her dog Karenin, of Franz for the painter, Sabina. The novel is about freedom yearned for—of the Czechs from their Russian oppressors, of Tomas in his frenzy to discover the mystery and body of the world through the sexual responses of different women, of Sabina in her flight from the man who loves her.
The values of ‘love’ and ‘freedom’, which the author describes as ‘weight’ and ‘lightness’ respectively, are perceived by him as equally important and in an enduring tension with each other, Kundera sees the tension between weight and lightness as one of the significant philosophical tensions of our time. Certainly, Kundera places his story in the heart of it, Tomas choosing one pole, Sabina another, and the author himself emerging from the conflict, innocent and dry, judging neither pole as better or more positive.
For that is the way life is: ‘Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions is good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.’
The novel consists, apart from the main stories, of a series of reflections directly from the author on the actions of the characters, on the plight of the Czech nation, on issues philosophical or political, on almost anything from faeces to God. The reflections do not always have a clear bearing on the story, are whimsical, funny, tragic, mundane, and beautiful by turns, but every¬thing one discovers is related to everything else—yes, even faeces with God—and we have in Kundera’s book a cosmos in microcosm.
The narrative structure is loose and non-episodic, the story proceeds before one’s eyes in a series of sharp photographs, ‘young girls in unbelievably short skirts provoking the miserably sexually famished Russian soldiers by kissing random passersby before their eyes’, Tomas in the bedrooms of different women, Tereza holding the hand of Tomas tightly in her sleep. The progression from event to event is not linear, we know of the death of Tomas and Tereza in the middle of the book, and then to the last page are episodes developing the love of Tereza for Tomas, and elucidating its character. The story is interrupted constantly with descriptions of childhood and dreams in the case of Tereza, with questions on the history of the Czechs, when we come to the decision of Tomas whether or not to sign a petition of loyalty to the Russians: ‘After the Munich conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czechs’ country to Hitler.
Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times its size? or ‘Is it right to raise one’s voice when others are being silenced? Yes…Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death?’
Kundera does not give a reply to many of the questions he poses, but to do so, he would have to be a philosopher or a social scientist, and he is neither. He does not offer us even poetical solutions, and the reason is that he is himself of the generation of agonized Czechs, who suffer under the domination of a foreign power, and he feels like the rest of his nation angry, small, and utterly helpless. The problem is too much in the present to admit of a smooth assimilation. And the business of the writer is really to be true to reality, to unfull it thus, and not really to offer impatient solutions.
The setting of the novel is remarkable for its lack of visual and auditory image, its absence of identifiable houses and chairs and trees. Nothing in the background fastens itself upon the eye that is specifically Czech, the scenes of Zurich and Prague are interchangeable as far as the setting goes, and the scenes of demonstrations by Czech youths, and startling foreground images such as that of the crow dying wrapped up in a red handkerchief by Tereza approach one with the effect of a meteor in an opaque and starless night sky. On the rare occasion when a place is described, the picture is bleak: ‘She entered a hall with dirty whitewashed walls, climbed a flight of stone stairs with iron banieters and turned to the left. It was the second door; no name, no bell. She knock-ed.’
If we are to accept the literary belief that landscape in a story is the objective correlative of the state of mind of the char¬acters, the setting, an expres¬sion of the human will, we can appreciate the reasons for the absence of landscape, where the will has been caused to fail, and horror and hopeless¬ness accompany every act of trying to link oneself with the environment. The author him¬self shares completely in this case the alienation of the char¬acters from their lives, and the resultant landscape is a blank.
DREAM AND LIFE
This is not to say that the book lacks textural detail worthy of mention. The most vivid images come in the suterranean dream-life of Tereza, of which the most beautiful is a dream where she is being led away blindfolded and shot before a tree of her choice on Petrin Hill because Tomas desires her to do so. She pretends all the time that she is there of her own volition because she loves her husband too much not to do as he desires. She ultimately backs out of the execution in terror by confessing: ‘It wasn’t my choice’, and is agonized by her betrayal of Tomas. In fact, the dream is the metaphorical, oneiric representation of her belief that in order to be free to sleep with other women, her husband desires that Tereza sleep with another man. She even tries to—in the flesh and blood—and exactly as in the execution dream, fails towards the end. The meeting of dream and life and Tereza’s perception of Tomas’ expectation of her are really very complex and subtle phenomena, but presented by Kundera with a simplicity that is breathtaking. In, as it were, a series of photographs from dream and deal life, the connections become evident to you in the juxtaposition.
Another very moving scene is the death of the dog Karenin at the end of the book, Tereza lying down on the floor with her head beside Karenin’s, Tereza talking to the dog about rabbits and cows as Tomas injects into her the serum that will put her out of pain forever. Karenin looking into Tereza’s eyes, licking her face, unafraid, and the white sheet with tiny violets on which she is laid to die. When they carry her finally to her grave: ‘the sheet felt wet to Tereza’s hands. He puddled his way into our lives and now he is puddling his way out, she thought, and she was glad to feel the moisture on her hands….’ Karenin was really a female.
About the death of people Kundera is less sentimental. He will dismiss in a sentence from a letter the deaths of Tomas and Tereza, characters he has clearly loved, he is not prepared to accord their abandoning life weight. He has taken an interest in the details of their living, yes, but always with lightness and lambency, afraid to dwell, afraid to be over-serious or emphasize too much. He has too great a sense of proportion to let anything grow larger than life. My suspicion, sometimes, is that he is afraid to let his characters grow even as large as life—because confronting their lives would then mean having to cope with tragedy. And Mr. Kundera, he doesn’t like KITSCH!
The characters Kundera chooses to present are not recognizably Czech; they are not even recognizably European. They belong to a community of liberal intellectuals, which can be found anywhere in the world: gentle, proficient in their chosen area of work, relatively un-political, curious, interested in life, loving, jealous of their freedom, accepting and non-rebellious in the main, but sensitive and developing with the events of their life. People without very strong stands in a political or personal sense to start with, but whose lives confront them with such intolerable situations that they end up in a radical, offending position. So we have Tomas going down ring after ring from talented surgeon to general practitioner to window washer to farm hand as the result of a treatise he has written on Sophocles’ Oedipus, and which has accidentally offended the occupation regime.
The author has created the character of Tomas with a pyschological insight and delicacy hard to come by, his desire for all women against his love of the one, Tereza, the call of freedom and self-actualization as a surgeon in Zurich against the unquenchable need to be with Tereza. He gives up both surgery and the pursuit of women, but retains to the end a childlike disposition to happiness. The quality which gives Tomas his superiority over the other characters is his ‘compassion’, a word in Kundera’s vocabulary meaning, not pity for an inferior, but ‘co-feeling’, i.e., to be so joined to another as to feel with him his ‘joy, anxiety, happiness, pain’.
Tereza has read the letters of Tomas’ mistress, Sabina, to him and dreams one night that Tomas has ‘ordered her to stand in the corner while he made love’ to Sabina. The sight of it caused Tereza in¬tolerable suffering. Hoping to alleviate the pain in her heart by pains of the flesh,’ she jabbed needles under her fingernails’. When Tomas hears of her dream and Tereza reading the letter she says, ‘Throw me out’…’Instead of throwing her out, he seized her hand and kissed the tips of her fingers, because at that moment he himself ‘ felt the pain under the fingernails as surely as if the nerves of her fingers led straight to his own brain’.
Tereza, on her end, is also a gentle and accepting creature she reproaches only herself for being tortured by Tomas’ end¬less dalliances with women. Once alone, does she walk out on him? Her character is wide-eyed and peculiarly Alice-in-Wonderland down to her last dream, where she sees Tomas shot and shrinking till he final¬ly turns into a hapless white rabbit, which she hugs to her breast. She provides a counter¬point to Sabina in the story, the independent, talented, unsentimental painter, who is more anxious to be rid of what she has than to find out what it is she really seeks.
Dialogue, when it is allowed free rein, and is not interrupted with comment from the omniscient author has a brisk, Hemingway-quality about it, as in the altercation of Tereza, as waitress, with the mooning adolescent, the short, bald man, who insults her, and the tall man who comes to her rescue. Likewise, in the encounter of Tomas with the woman, who looks ‘an odd combination of a giraffe, stork, and a sensitive young boy’, and with whom he would later sleep. ‘You have a fine sense of curiosity’, he said.
‘Is it so obvious?’
‘Yes, in the way you use your
‘And how do I use my eyes?’
‘You squint. And then the
questions you ask.’
‘You mean you don’t like to
There is a motif we come across again and again in the book, ‘shit’ or the act of defea-cation, the author’s charming childhood image of God with His ‘divine intestine’, Tereza voiding her bowels as adjunct to an undesired sexual encounter, ‘the invisible Venice of shit underlying our bathrooms, bedrooms, dance halls and parliaments’, the defecating habits of Stalin’s unclaimed son, Yakov, leading to his extraordinary death. The preoccupation is a pre-adolescent one to my mind, the inability of an aesthete to come to terms with that which is not entirely beautiful about life. Yet every time you feel you are about to catch the author slipping over the edge into puerility, his train of thought turns itself inside out, and he surprises you with wisdom. He tells you that only in a world which includes shit and it’s concomitant disgust, can you also have ‘sexual love as we know it, accompanied by pounding heart and blinded senses’. For only the sensibility that can respond with revulsion can respond in another situation, with excitement. So much for the uses of ‘shit’.
In fact, it is in the juxtaposition of ontologies so disparate to the casual observer that Kundera achieves his greatest heights—poetic and metaphysical. He is matchless in the manner he brings opposites together, and demonstrates by an existential event their actual closeness, their affinity. We see Tomas going through sexual encounter after encounter through the book, but he also makes huge sacrifices, and happily, he follows Tereza to wherever she wishes—first Prague, then to the farm. He grudges her nothing, he is generous and seeks only to give. Tereza is revealed in the end, to us and to herself, as a woman who has ever thirstily asked for more, and more, love; she has in all her gestures been small and suspicious. Her love pales in quality beside that of Tomas, the great womanizer is, by another paradox, the great lover.
Kundera’s other pre-occupation in the book is with ‘kitsch’, namely, sentimentality, be it about a private dream such as Sabina’s ‘two lighted windows and the happy family living behind them’ or the May Day celebration, be it the mawkish sense of well-being derived by an American seeing children at play or the dream corresponding to an ideology, communistor capitalist; He mocks at the complacence and crassness of ‘the American way of life’ in the speech of the American actress on the borders of famine-racked Cambodia, at the simple, childlike need of the Left-wing intellectual to be part of the ‘Grand March’ of progress, his fear of losing face. In his exploding systematically the myths by which each man lives, we come at the end of the book to ask what it is that Milan Kundera himself lives by. (The writing of a book is surely the affirmation of something.) Freedom, perhaps, as we were led to think in the beginning, but soon found Tomas giving up his personal freedom for love, and even being happy. Sabina prefers her independence to love, and comes to lead a life of equal oblivion.
Perhaps, it is love that Kundera endows with a transcendent value; in fact, he demonstrates through the entire first section of the book how fortuitous is the birth of love, how much a matter of chance the object of it’s choice. We have Tereza .declaring to Tomas about his friend, Z: ‘If I hadn’t met you. I’d certainly have fallen in love with him’ … ‘Even then her words had left Tomas in a strange state of melancholy, and now he realized it was only a matter of chance that Tereza loved him and not his friend, Z.’
In the last pages of the novel, Tereza discovers the inadequacy of her love for Tomas: ‘If she had really loved Tomas with a great love, she would have stuck it out with him abroad.’ When she points out to Tomas the sacrifice of his mission, surgery, he replies: ‘Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it is a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions.’ This from a surgeon who would, in another time, have given miraculous life to the dying. We are left gasping.
Milan Kundera’s attitude to all characters, all perspectives on life, is peculiarly equal and just, loving—and in the same breath—distant, frolicsome and close to tears, his touch always light, always teasing. He has something like Shakespeare’s composure and sense of proportion, but while the poetry of his language—if any—is entirely lost on those of us who rend him in translation, the rewards of his book are in the lyrical musings upon love his tenderness for the one who suffers, and the delicacy of insight he brings to the motives for the actions of his characters. He burns hard and gem-like in the desolate ambience that he portrays.