The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1984)

9780060932138 - The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1984)

The title caught my eye while perusing the bookshelves because “unbearable” and “lightness” are two words I would not commonly associate with each other.  Kundera did not elude me from the meaning of his novel’s title for long.  The author challenges our concept of the words “heavy” and “light” within the book’s first few pages using Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return to illustrate our desire to escape, that which imposes “heaviness” in our lives (responsibility & obligation) and our struggle to achieve, that which is “light”.

Is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?  The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it…but in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body.  The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment.  The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. (5)

Typically, I am intimidated by books that immediately delve into the meaning of our existence and would prefer if I am eased into life’s greatest quandaries in a novel.  However, Kundera is non-intrusive or demanding of the reader, rather simply inviting us to pause and re-explore these dilemmas of life’s meaning while he tells us about his “friends” in Communist Czechoslovakia during the 1970’s.  He takes an essentially “light-hearted” approach to some ideas that are significantly “heavy” in matter.  I was enthralled for the entire length of the novel.

The story ultimately revolves around two central characters: Tomas (a surgeon whose womanizing behavior I actually found endearing) and Teresa (Tomas’ frenzied wife who constantly battles nightmares of her manifested fears with the reality of her life), with a supporting cast of characters intertwined with Tomas’ and Teresa’s lives through “chance” encounters and “coincidences”.  Each character considers the importance of their existence in Russian-invaded Czechoslovakia differently, which offers the reader a unique perspective on human endeavor.  I found myself caring and relating to each character’s story that Kundera says are his own “unrealized possibilities” and explained “that is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them”.  By the novel’s end, I contemplated about the true imprint each of these characters would make in the world if at all, or if they would float away in their lightness.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being takes place within a certain timeframe, but Kundera’s vividly beautiful language and compelling character story-telling are timeless.  It’s difficult to review a book with so much power and substance, but I will say that if “eternal return” is true, I will be eternally returning to this novel to further consider the consequences of our actions in this world and how our existence will ultimately make a memorable, “weighted” impact.

Rating 9 out of 10

Review By E.C.

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