“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” was published in the 1980’s and written by the Czech author Milan Kundera. I knew this book was considered a modern classic but still wasn’t quite ready for the impact it would have on me. Kundera’s writing is a nice flow that ranges from reflective, philosophical monologues directed to the reader and the life-spanning narrative of four major characters in the story: Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz.
What I liked best about the book was that I could relate to each character. I could understand them deeply, which is a testimony to the power of the author’s writing. I could understand the dichotomy between Tomas’s love for Tereza and his philandering, womanizing ways. I could understand Tereza’s melancholy–her whole life, indeed, seemed like one melancholic episode after another. I could understand that sadness was at the core of her being.
I could understand Sabina’s selfishness, and Franz’s idealism. I didn’t judge these characters for their actions, judging was out of the question. I couldn’t judge them, because I knew where they were coming from. Kundera’s understanding of the humanity of these characters breathed life into the story and into their actions. Their lives were all exaggerated, of course, or at least it seemed so to me, but I could still relate in small ways to all of their perspectives and points of view.
The philosophical, reflective parts of the book are a gem. The theme of the novel is the dichotomy between heaviness and lightness– and whether life is ultimately a tragedy or a comedy. Tomas is more of a comedic character. His affairs with women are light-hearted, but his love with Tereza is tragic, because he could never give her what she wanted, which was a faithful marriage and love. Tereza is a tragic character. She had an upbringing devoid of beauty, and a marriage devoid of the fidelity that would have completed her love for Tomas.
Sabina and Franz are less defined. Sabina’s life is a tragedy because she could never commit to anything, but she refuses to acknowledge it as such and clings to the lightness her transient decisions, though it ultimately brings her nothing of value. Franz’s life is a comedy, although he views it as something grand and important. These are two characters who do not understand themselves and whose lives, therefore, seem incomplete in comparison to Tomas’s and Tereza’s lives, who–despite everything–have lived fully, and are whole.
Is life ultimately tragic, or ultimately comic? Does it mean everything, or nothing at all? Is it worth being sentimental about our personal affairs, or is it all just some grand and elaborated joke that will be erased by the inevitable passage of time?
These questions all remain unanswered, because there is no answer. Tomas and Tereza cannot decide if they are either happy, or sad. Actually, Tereza is mostly sad and a little happy, and Tomas is mostly happy and a little sad. It is all a mixture between these two extremes, it is a contradiction which doesn’t really contradict itself in the end. It is the unbearable lightness of being.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in a tragi-comic read and who is up to reflect on these matters of the human condition.