Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera

This book did not grab me immediately, and I was tempted to walk away about twenty pages in, but I persevered and was rewarded. It's somewhat difficult to sum up the plot of The Unbearable Lightness of Being--essentially it revolves around lives of four people and a dog. Through exploring the relationships between the characters, Kundera offers up a lot of food for thought about the nature of love and how our decisions reflect both the lightness and the heaviness of our nature.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being was not always an easy book to read, and sometimes the characters made me angry or frustrated. This is proof that I can get a little too emotionally involved with books, but that is only because the issues discussed are so weighty (forgive my pun)--from the nature of fidelity/infidelity, to our dependence upon those that we love. I also struggled at times to relate to the characters, as their approach to love and relationships is so different than my own. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was challenging, and it left me with questions.

Much like everything else I have been reading for the past five months, this book also unintentionally pertained to the former Soviet Union, as it is set against the backdrop of the Prague Spring of '68 and deals with the aftermath of the ensuing Russian occupation. It seems like I just can't get away. (I promise my next book is about something else!) While the ramifications of the Prague Spring are discussed in the novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is far from a work of historical fiction, as the real focus remains on relationships.

The style of The Unbearable Lightness of Being initially reminded me a bit of Hemingway, and while Kundera's writing is actually quite different, I still couldn't shake a feeling of similarity (particularly to A Farewall to Arms). The language is really beautiful at times, and the images and metaphors employed are fascinating. Since The Unbearable Lightness of Being was originally written in Czech, I found myself pondering what subtleties of the text were lost or modified in translation; I suppose I will never know unless I decide to take up Czech!

My favorite quote comes is from early on in the story and explains Tereza's relationship with books:
Something else raised him above the others as well: he had an open book on his table. No one had ever opened a book in that restaurant before. In Tereza's eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library, and above all, the novels. She had read any number of them, and Fielding to Thomas Mann. They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the streets with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.
 Like Tereza, I think I have always found books (and certain books in particular) to be signs of a "secret brotherhood."

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