Monday, July 9, 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Review of Sorts

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a very special book.

I came to it not knowing what exactly to expect, I’d never read any of Kundera’s books before, and most of my friends -while confirming that it’s a great book - refused to tell me more, opting to tell me that I have to read it to know what’s so special about it. 

I thank them for doing so.
Upon picking up the book, and starting to read, I realized that Kundera has a very interesting way of approaching his story. He doesn’t go for the pure approach of simply listing events and characters, neither does he wax philosophical about motivations and motifs without purpose. He achieves an amazing balance between both, weaving events and thoughts together in a manner that had me hooked from the very first page.

Thing is, by doing so, Kundera establishes something that I’ve never seen before; it’s a dialogue with the reader, some sort of connection that involves you in the story itself. Mind you, you’re not a character by any means, but you become a fellow explorer of sorts. Kundera is talking to you, telling you what he thinks of the characters, of their motivations, he even talks about his own thoughts regarding himself at one point. It’s a very transcendent feeling, and - perhaps because I’m Egyptian, I got this very distinct image of sitting at an Ahwa with the man, having him regale me with the tales of Tomas and Tereza.

It really is a lot of fun.

There exists a caveat, however. Unbearable Lightness is a novel that relies on a lot of analysis rather than events, and while that makes it a very interesting book to read, there’s only so much analysis you can do before things start to get slightly redundant.

Perhaps it would be useful here to talk a little about the book itself. The main motif examined by the book is, as shown in the title, is the unbearable lightness of one’s being. The idea is that one’s life is essentially fleeting and inconsequential, seeing as it happens only once, and that your experiences are - for all intents and purposes - meaningless, because you won’t live again to try a different path that would give weight to this life or the past.

This is explored through the various characters that pervade the novel. One could say that there is no single protagonist, seeing as Tomas, Tereza, Sabina and Franz all gain a healthy amount of focus, but it is Tereza (and Tomas right after) who possess the lion’s share. For all intents and purposes, Tereza represents heaviness in life; her thoughts and actions are all propelled with a strong sense of purpose, even if she is always confused about what the purpose might be. In fact, it is her constant striving for said purpose that indicates her ‘heaviness’ so to speak. She yearns for her world to have meaning, and finds it utterly disgusting when people (such as her mother) neither share nor respect her desire. 

Perhaps on the other end of the spectrum lies Tomas, a brilliant surgeon who seems to lead a decidedly ‘light’ life; he has erotic relationships with many women, never assigning extensive emotion or meaning to any of them. Kundera never demonizes Tomas, he simply presents him as an example of a man who refuses to give weight to too many things, be it women or political bodies, or even his own views. 

The interesting thing here is that - unlike what one might expect - you really cannot hate Tomas. At first, he might seem callous and selfish, but as you go through the novel, you realize that he does possess compassion and feels for other people. He doesn’t act out of simple desire, and he is in fact a very kind gentleman. You also don’t hate Tereza, because the heaviness she seeks and represents is awfully familiar; most of us seek that heaviness in our lives, that sort of anchor that gives life meaning, even if in retrospect it seems naive or silly, it is something that we strive towards. It’s very interesting.

Thing is, when I think about it, Kundera’s writing is very sublime when discussing his characters that you end up feeling an immense amount of empathy for all of them, because you end up relating to various aspects of their lives. The doomed-to-betrayal Sabina, the heavy-to-the-point-of-naivete Franz...they’re all relatable. None of them are what one might consider ‘bad’ people. They’re...well, real. I suppose that’s what it comes down to, the inherent reality of each person in the book, and how they react to various things, such as political situations, the actions of other people, and even architecture. 

What I also enjoyed is how, in Kundera’s portrayal of those four characters, there exists a comparison (that might be clear to some, but to me it necessitated some extra reading/analysis) of how a heavy/light relationship might be like. On one hand, there’s Tomas/Tereza, and on the other Franz/Sabina. At the beginning, one finds it hard to see how Tomas and Tereza’s relationship would work out; he’s too light, separates the concepts of eroticism and love, and leads life with a certain sense of freedom. That contrasts heavily with Tereza’s desire for heaviness and purpose in all her affairs, and it causes her plenty of heartache (and even a very close brush with insanity.) However, throughout the novel, it becomes apparent that Tomas grows attached to her, much to his surprise. She adds an element of heaviness to his decidedly light life, and - unlike all other aspects of heaviness that he completely rejects - he accepts that (but not without conflict, as is to be expected). Her happiness and well-being becomes a directive for him, a purpose. 

On the other hand, the extremes of lightness and heaviness, Sabina and Franz, are too different. Sabina recognizes the goodness within Franz, but his constant desire to find meaning clashes too strongly with her own lightness that she ends up leaving him. Franz, almost humorously, finds meaning even in that, and actually goes on a life-ending journey based on that meaning. 

However, the book is not entirely without fault (at least to me). As I mentioned earlier, the thoughtful analysis gives into redundancy that really doesn’t add anything. By part five, we have a very strong understanding of all the characters involved, and thus adding more details serves only to further strengthen such thoughts, which is acceptable but somewhat questionable. I found myself pausing at parts and going back, then thinking ‘did we really need this?’ more than once. I will admit that there were some bits that actually enriched such understanding, such as Tomas’s decision with regards to the petition, or Tereza’s ‘affair’.
But largely, part six is - to me - completely unnecessary. The life of Tomas and Tereza in the countryside, relations with his son, and Karenin add approximately nothing to the tale, and very little to the analysis. 

Perhaps it’s just me, but I think I could’ve done without it. Maybe some people would find added meaning in the end scene with the bedroom, and I’ll admit that it was a bit uplifting to read, especially since the reader knows what’s to happen later on. So, I guess what I’m saying is that I understand why it’s there, but I could’ve done without it just the same.

To conclude, I really do believe that this book is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever been through, and I’m quite glad I had the chance to read it, especially at this juncture in my life. What one needs quite often is a new point of view, and a reason to think, and this book provides plenty of that. It provides beauty, structure and thought.

And honestly, what more could you possibly ask for? 

Aside from a bowler hat, that is. ;)

See you guys soon.

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