Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Author: Milan Kundera
By Mae Anthony
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the fourth novel by Czech-French author Milan Kundera. Set during the 1968 Prague Spring through to the early 1970s, it follows the lives of two males and two females who are connected in some way. It presents the philosophical opposition of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence: thus suggesting that human lives are made up of a series of coincidences and that we each have one life, the events of which occur only once. Concepts of sex and romantic love, and their significance to the human experience, are brought into question frequently, and arguments made about it are explored through a multi-perspective narrative delivery of characters’ experiences. Its beauty lies in the way it communicates a complex paradoxical take on existence: our lightness in being is unbearable because it is weighed down by the puncturing heaviness of love, war, death, and passion.
The premise of the novel cleverly isolates the struggles of the human experience for the individual, weighing them up against each other showing that they are complicated, but if you can get comfortable with them it is, in a sense, bearable. If we supposedly only have one life, what is it to love another person in this life when having such a significant hold over another person makes our morals and responsibilities seem, to put it cynically, redundant. Love, and monogamy, each shape-shifting ideologies for various people, political and financial prosperity, fame and fortune, being remembered. What should any of these mean if we have but one shot at life, only for us to simply fade away?
At one point, you think you’ve wrapped your head around these root-deep realities. But then Kundera chisels away at the layers of bark to suddenly reveal the flesh underneath: it places the individual into the context of all of the surrounding naturalistic occurrences, including the mass amount of other individuals faced with the same inherent constraints. Although published in 1984, the book being set during the Prague Spring of 1968 (and the years following) is an interesting choice of setting for the above underpinnings mentioned. Simply because it followed the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, which changed the political, social and cultural life of Czechoslovakians thenceforth.
The novel is divided into seven parts, each exploring multiple perspectives of various characters who all exhibit the arguments presented. And this is where we find the cherry on top of the red velvet cake: not only is the book a darkly delightful presentation of life’s realities, but each character is intriguing and captivating. It is through these characters that the author’s harrowingly apparent philosophies are introduced, leaving each reader to react accordingly. That is, in their own way; some may revolt and some may be awakened. Either way, you will surely reassess a thing or two.