The tale that started with Nietzsche and ended with Karenin.
I was introduced to Milan Kundera and his book two years ago. Talking to one of my dear friends at work who was taking up her master’s in literature, I was suddenly struck by her enthusiasm for The Unbearable Lightness of Being that it made quite an impression on me. I made a note in memory to read it.
Another friend lent me her copy. It was worn out and the pages have long turned to dirty white. I love it anyway. Actually, I love it all the more. The book showed signs of being read, passed down from hand to hand. I did not count on going through it for four months! Four months! It has beaten my old record of the longest time spent to get through a book!
It was not Milan Kundera’s fault, at least not entirely. A lot has happened in between. And I’ve read other books too. This particular reading experience though has made me realise what I have always suspected all along – timing also applies to books. I must have picked it up at the wrong time. Last November, I was not in the mood to read anything about love. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has sent me into depression.
The Unbearable Lightness of being is not about love, I found out later. Or was it?
I give Kundera two thumbs up for his unique writing style. I haven’t read a book like it. (I know I’m still under read. There are too many books in this world. A lifetime is just not enough.) It is not exactly compelling. The plot is too slow-paced. The characters do not seem real. They are like ideas – an abstract – that sprouted from the author’s head and get assigned with gender and basic background information. Tomas is a doctor in Prague who met a young woman in a small Czech town. Tereza, a waitress, believes Tomas is brought into her life by fortuitous events – something to do with the number 6. She follows him to Prague, shows up at his place and right there and then, they made love.
And so start their long-winded journey. Interwoven into their lives are two other people who completed the complex love saga. The four of them love, but they love in different ways. As a chronic womaniser, Tomas has affairs with many different women, all the while claiming he loves Tereza. One of his women is Sabina, a painter. Sabina is mistress to another man – Franz. Their choices and actions propel the novel forward. Some of them are senseless. Others are downright stupid. But somehow, they tie up the strings and provide us with a unique experience.
I will not call the book a love story after all. A story about love, yes. Hell, it made me ponder that dreaded word and what it means. I even wrote a poem about it because I so disagree with the characters’ take on love that I have to define it on my own terms. Aside from the intricacies of love and choices, the book also explores the deeper relationship between a man and a woman – underlining their differences and highlighting their similarities. There is also a great deal of infidelity and a sense of individuality. The main characters are all intellectuals, even Tereza, who has a penchant for reading. They seem too detached from their fellowmen, at least that’s the impression I got while reading about their thoughts. They live inside their own heads.
But the book is certainly philosophical. I have an inkling Kundera only wrote it so he can shove down his philosophy down our throats. I was half-kidding. For all its faults, I can say that I have expanded my way of thinking after reading it. It is not something I regret.
Kundera made use of dreams to intensify the inner struggles of his characters. He also employs a lot of metaphors, and I love almost every one of them. And although minimal, there are bits and pieces of history and politics.
I know it is only a matter of when for me to forget the names of the characters, but the ideas they planted in my head will stay. They will stay for a long time.
Would I read another Kundera book? Absolutely.
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