[Book Review] A Journey Between Literature and Philosophy

book-cover

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

By Milan Kundera, Gallimard, 1984

 

Set in Czechoslovakia in 1968, The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the artistic and intellectual life of Czech society in the 1960s and 1970s across the stories of four characters. Tomas, a surgeon, has managed to separate love and sex. He has a wife, Tereza. He loves her, but he has sex with other women. Tereza comes from a traumatic childhood: hated by her mother who laughed about her body, she was also sexually abused by her step-father. For these reasons, Tereza sees her body in an unconventional way. Among Tomas’ lovers, Sabina is his favorite; she is a smart and beautiful artist. The events of the Prague Spring result in the Soviet military occupation of the city and all characters move to Switzerland. In Geneva, Sabina begins an affair and a love relation with Franz who is an unhappily married academic. Sabina will move to other countries leaving behind Tomas, Tereza, and Franz.

 

An assuredly postmodern novel written by Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is composed in episodes where characters’ stories are interspersed with the author’s philosophical ruminations. The philosophical framework of the novel is based on the discussion of lightness against heaviness. Kundera contrasts Nietzsche’s philosophy of eternal return with Parmenides’ understanding of life as light, where accepting the lightness of being means accepting a certain lack of ultimate meaning in life, and living for momentary beauty. Kundera also groups his characters into two categories: the first being Tereza and Franz, who are both heavy characters and are linked to Nietzsche’s philosophy; second, Tomas and Sabina, who are characterized by lightness of Parmenides thought.

 

Milan Kundera is a Czech-born French writer who was born into a middle-class family in Czechoslovakia. He joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia though he was soon expelled because of his “anti-party” activities. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was first published in 1984 as a French translation; in 1985, it was published in the original Czech version as Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí, but it was banned in Czechoslovakia until 1989. The critically acclaimed work was later adapted into an American movie.

 

Alessandra Bonanomi, Reporter for The AsiaN

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