“Because were she to die here they would cover her up with a stone, and in the mind of a woman for whom no place is home the thought of an end to all flight is unbearable.” – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The past four months have been varied and volatile. I travelled in Latin America for three out of four of them (more on those journeys will follow) and the month immediately after my return was perhaps one of the busiest I have experienced, filled with celebrations, further travels and chance encounters with people I had not seen in years. My sister also lent me Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being which she had received from a friend a few years previously. It took me some time to get through it. Kundera’s prose is insightful and profound, I hoped that in reading it in small instalments his ideas might become lodged more permanently in my mind. However, as is the case with all great novels, reading them once is only scratching the surface.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is concerned with the concept of eternal return as it was put forward by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. It is the notion that all existence and energy has been recurring, and will continue to recur across infinite time or space. Kundera explores this idea in relation to lightness and weight, an opposition which, in his eyes, “is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all”.
The narrative focusses primarily on the lives of five characters around the time of the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalisation in Czechoslovakia following World War II, during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union. Tomas is a talented surgeon and womaniser who believes that love and sex should be considered independently from one another. Tereza is Tomas’s partner, the woman he loves. She comes from a small town and works briefly as a photographer. She struggles to deal with Tomas’s promiscuity. Tomas and Tereza own a dog, Karenin, who plays a pivotal role in their relationship, particularly towards the end of the novel. Sabina is an artist, one of Tomas’s mistresses and closest friends. Her entire existence is centred around betrayal. She emigrates to Switzerland and eventually to the United States. Sabina’s lover in Switzerland is a prominent academic named Franz. He is a dreamer of sorts and keen to romanticise Sabina’s fraught roots.
Through the interactions of the characters, Kundera reflects upon the nature of platonic love and physical love, personal freedom, and human desire, among other concepts. The author interjects here and there in an informal manner. He clarifies philosophical notions or explains how he created the characters in the first place. This approach draws the reader in, involves the reader in the lives of the characters concerned despite being reminded that they are fictional. In using this method, Kundera highlights another key concept in the novel: the fine line between the imaginary and what is real.
Reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being was interesting for me on a number of levels. I appreciated the sincerity of Kundera’s prose and his meditations upon the human psyche. Having recently experienced the end of a long-term relationship, it was significant for me to read a book that explained emotional states so intelligibly.
It was recently my sister’s birthday. Since she gave me The Unbearable Lightness of Being to read in the first place, I paired the book with the cake I made for the occasion. The recipe is from Molly Yeh’s blog. I halved the ingredients to make it a single-layer cake. The moist sponge and rich icing were balanced by the slight bitterness of the hazelnuts. It was a struggle not to eat it all in one sitting.