Posted by: Nathan | May 9, 2010

Weighty Ideas in Unbearable Lightness

It is a shame that my teaching load didn’t allow me to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being properly; it would have been more enjoyable if I had been able to read it through in a shorter amount of time in order to see the totality of what Kundera is up to in these pages. Milan Kundera is the consummate novelist of ideas, by which I mean the plot and characters function in order for the author to explore things he’s interested in.

In this book, Kundera is interested in different people’s views of love and sex, and (as the title suggests) just how easily our lives are ruined, lost, and forgotten. He uses mainly four characters in the book to accomplish his ends: Terez, Tomas, Sabina, and Franz, all of whose lives are subject to their respective fundamental ideals. The first three characters form a love triangle which is then undone, and Sabina meets Franz later. For a book with so much sex in it (there’s a lot), Unbearable Lightness is more about what drives people to make decisions than love per se. As one expects with a postmodern novel, Kundera isn’t interested in moralizing here; he explores his characters psychologically. Their interactions are simultaneously loaded with meaning and completely bereft of it–like life in general, perhaps.

The best part about this book is the way Kundera takes an object or idea and then stretches it to the limit of its meaning to see what he can squeeze out of it. One example is the bowler hat on the cover, which is symbolic of a myriad of different relationships that Sabina has had, yet the hat never transcends itself.

Even more fascinating is the extended exploration of “shit” and “kitsch” at the end of the book: “The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation.” (248). On the other hand, “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit…kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence” (248). Which is the better worldview: one that includes everything we hate about existence or one that deliberately ignores all things unpleasant?

The discussion of kitsch gets even more intriguing when Kundera attaches it to politics. He writes that politics always bring trenchant division in the public because “political movements rest not so much on rational attitudes as on the fantasies, images, words, and archetypes that come together to make up this or that political kitsch” (257). This statement couldn’t be more true today.

Milan Kundera creates his novel as a vehicle for him to take up ideas and words he wants to explore, and the narrative serves that end. I wouldn’t say the story is lacking–it is compelling now and again–but to write a great tale isn’t what Kundera is after. He wants you so grapple with challenging issues and ideas that make up society, and he is successful at doing so. I liked the book but not as much as <i>Immortality</i>, which stays lighter in mood and is funnier. ★★★★

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