Friday, April 27, 2012
Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING is not quite a novel, not quite a philosophical treatise, not quite political commentary. It has fictional characters and a “plot,” if you want to call it that…but the plot is hardly the most important part of the book. It is chock full of interesting philosophical ideas.
Perhaps the thing to say about THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING is that it is an incredible experience that cannot be fully understood and appreciated in just one go. Perhaps what astounded me most about this book was how nuanced the characters are. Like real human beings, no one is perfect: in fact, Tereza, Tomas, and the others are often aggravatingly flawed, to the point where you kind of want to throw down the book in frustration, or else reach into the story and single-handedly plunk them in psychotherapy.
The real and frightful thing about such a reaction, however, is that, in certain ways, Tereza and Tomas are eerily canny reflections of ourselves, and what our pithy and ultimately futile internal struggles would look like at the hands of a literary genius. Tomas’ perpetual womanizing and his guilt over his inability to make Tereza happy, Tereza’s hopelessness over her own feelings of jealousy—it reflects some of the ugliest parts of ourselves, the parts that we’re afraid to see in literature, for fear that we may recognize them as being part of ourselves.
It is because of this discomfort that Kundera creates in the relationship between reader and creation that I both admire and fear this book and Kundera’s writings. I admire it because I see the possibilities for what I can do with my own thoughts and writings; I fear it because Kundera’s thorough, everyone-yet-no-one portrayal of his characters could so easily be me or any one of us, despite evidence to the contrary (i.e. we are not perpetual womanizers or guilty jealous snakes). But Kundera’s omniscient narration helps us understand the mentality of flawed characters, and if you apply that to real life, it’s hard to not not think of things in black and white afterwards.
There are things that I didn’t like about this book: the political stuff (it’s just not my thing), and the fact that Kundera often rejects typical literary conventions such as introductions and climaxes and denouements. I think, however, that the experience of reading THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, the ideas about living and existing and worth that it contains, and the things it makes me think about the potential of writing, make everything worth it. I am already looking forward to the next time I can reread this, pencil in hand to mark the things I missed before.
Harper Perennial / Oct. 27, 2009 / Paperback (reprint) / 320pp. / $16.99
Borrowed from library.