The weight of life

Milan Kundera is one of those authors that I've been meaning to read for some time. Somehow or other I managed to miss The unbearable lightness of being when it was published to widespread praise in the 1980s. I did see the film (beautifully shot, but surprisingly unmemorable) - Kundera apparently disliked it so much that he refused to have any other books turned into film.

I think in the 1980s, it fed into the zeitgeist. The Cold War was at its coldest though an unexpected thaw was imminent. Kundera's story of the Prague Spring in 1968, and its aftermath was also a very human story, melding life and history with philosophy. This may make it sound like a rather chilly distant tale, and you could certainly argue that this chilly distance does feed into the central character of the novel, Tomas; but it is also one of a very small number of novels that has made me laugh out loud and cry.

The central story is about Tomas, a talented surgeon, who is also a serial philanderer, his wife, Tereza, and their dog, Karenin. The novel follows the family over the course of ten years, through the Prague Spring of 1968, into exile in Switzerland, and back to the totalitarian state that Czechoslovakia had become. Alongside this central storyline, there is the story of another Czech exile, Tomas' long term mistress, Sabina, and her lover in exile, the unhappily married Franz.

Kundera has been accused of misogyny, but I think this is rather unfair, certainly in the case of this novel. The author isn't aiming here for a romantic ideal, but is looking at life as it often is - imperfectly formed, as we stumble from one mistake to the other with moments of joy in between. Kundera doesn't condone Tomas' philandering, or Tereza's decision to return to a totalitarian state, it is just what it is. And if some of the female characters are portrayed less than kindly (Franz' dreadful wife, Marie-Claude), the men don't fare any better. Overall there are far more "good" female characters in this novel, than there are male.

If the human characters are sometimes less than fully formed, that may be in part because you are conscious that this is a novel, Kundera steps through the fourth wall to philosophise on the nature of life and writing. Although the situation that Tomas and Tereza are living in is extreme compared to most of us, both in the sociological sense of the regime that they are living in, and the complexities of their daily life together, this novel is not dated. Its themes of living together within the wider community and a relationship are as relevant as ever. The day to day complications of life; a life that despite your best attempts you can never be completely prepared for, for who knows what may happen next, are beautifully described here, for that is what Kundera does brilliantly - his writing is so beautiful.

Where Kundera really shines though is in the depiction of the relationship between Tomas, Tereza, and their dog, Karenin. Of all the characters in the book, Karenin is the most rounded and well-drawn. His (actually her) very simplicity provides some of the funniest, saddest, and unforgettable moments in the novel.

Writer, John Banville, reviewed The unbearable lightness of being a while ago for The Guardian. Banville felt that Kundera's writing owed more to authors such as Stendhal, than to fellow Middle-Europeans such as Kafka. Perhaps this is not altogether surprising, at the time of writing the novel Kundera had been living in exile in France for nearly a decade, having seen his books removed from library shelves in Czechoslovakia by order of the state. The author, like his hero, Tomas, had faced exile and the annihilation of his career. Some of the most beautiful moments of descriptive writing could indeed be compared to Stendhal, but, to me, Kundera is undoubtedly Czech. The comic moments especially the laugh out loud ones have a clownish quality that reminded me of a writer such as Hasek, while there are some blackly funny episodes, such as the demise of poor Franz, that shrieked Kafka.

And yet Kundera has his own voice, and a very beautiful one it is, with magical moments of writing. I loved this novel, I loved Tereza and Karenin, I even loved the humanity and confusion of Tomas. I loved the moments of humour, and those of sadness. In a relatively short novel Kundera encapsulates life, and that, perhaps more than anything is why more than 30 years later, The unbearable lightness of being, despite the changing political face of the world, remains as relevant as ever.


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