Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being: review


The cover of this book shows a black bowler floating, illuminated by an essence of its own, above a bridge in beautiful Prague. More perfect a cover design could not be imagined for Milan Kundera's 20th-century masterpiece, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Like the bowler hat, motifs flow in and out of the prose seamlessly; philosophy blends with literature, theses blend with plot, and time mutates-- moving from one time to another completely devoid of structure, as if time was not linear but Hawkings-esque, a plane stretching infinitely in all directions.

This was the first time I was ever driven breathless by the plot-- the thought-processes of its characters, the often unexplainable actions, the rapid shifting of the characters' emotions-- and not the prose style. The prose is, fortunately for us, uncomplicated and easy to follow, without sacrificing the extreme complexity of Kundera's themes. I say complex because they are universal: themes of lightness and weight, soul and body, the relation of music to speech and of speech to emotion, the misunderstanding of words, the connection between animals and humans. They are themes of all philosophy classes, but from the perspective of not a philosopher, but a humble man, worn by time, a passive observer of the events of those around him.

On the surface, the story is one of two couples: Tomas, perennial womanizer, and his beloved wife Tereza, whom he consistently betrays; Sabina, Tomas's lover and famous artist, and her lover, the academic Franz. It is a pull-push story of weakness and strength, power and powerlessness. Thankfully the power in this story is not reserved in the hands of the man. Sabina herself is one of the most well-developed and interesting female characters of any book I have ever read, and certainly one with a great deal of power. It is a refreshing tale, unmoralizing and completely vulnerable. Every character becomes dear to the reader with time.

The themes of power and struggle are amplified in its setting, during the late '60s occupation of Czechoslovakia by the USSR. Our characters are constantly faced with the choice of supplication or deviance: either rise to the immortal and defeat the communists, and thus lose your occupation and whatever shreds of material happiness you possess, or succumb to the communist whip and continue daily life in silent obedience. All this makes "Unbearable Lightness" sound a little cliche, when in reality it is anything but. It is not even definitively anti-communist.

By far the most intriguing part of the novel is its notion of motifs, of images or objects that reappear continuously throughout your life, inspiring accidentally all events that unfold within it. I already mentioned Sabina's bowler hat, which consequently reminded me of Rene Magritte's paintings, most of which deal with anonymous men in bowler hats (Magritte's own artistic motif). In essence the motif is a piece of music, a variation of a theme; consequently, the music of Beethoven is another one of the novel's themes. For life to become art, a collage of motifs, is the consequence for all four of our main characters. Kundera posits that these motifs give our lives beauty and meaning, even though they--in and of themselves-- are mere empty symbols, like the idea of God.

Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness" is profound, surreal, evocative. Dreams and reality lie disturbingly close, undifferentiated and often meshed together. This novel seems the byproduct of an extremely sharp, extremely intellectual mind with the soul of an artist, a man so fascinated with the human condition that his heart seems to burst with both terror and unbearable delight.

1 comment:

A.A. Dowd said...

Great review.

"and time mutates-- moving from one time to another completely devoid of structure, as if time was not linear but Hawkings-esque, a plane stretching infinitely in all directions."

That particular notion is the one that sold me, almost instantly, on reading this novel. The manipulation of time, especially via our own memories, is a theme I simply can't get enough of. What is art for but helping us make sense of our experiences, of the seconds, minutes, days, years, lifetimes spent in this world? Art affords us the ability to find context in the clues history leaves us, and the road to that understanding isn't an intrinsically straight one.

I'm also intrigued by the importance Kundera invests in empty objects, and in the supposed exploration of man's relationship with beast. All profoundly interesting themes.

It's going on the reading list. In fact, I might start it on the plane.