Sunday, October 13, 2013

On "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera *****

I've intended--wanted--to read this book for a long while. Somehow, I managed to make it to four other books by Milan Kundera over the past couple of decades before I got to this one. I put off, for a long while, seeing the movie, in part because I didn't want the movie running through my head or ruining the "what happens next?" element of the novel.

And then, I gave in, watched the movie. I feared I'd probably ruined the book. And in a few ways, arguably, I may have. When Tereza and Tomas and Sabina wander into the pages, I end up with the movie actors in my head rather than Kundera's prose (although he doesn't give long physical descriptions of most of them, so at least the film doesn't completely obliterate the actual facts of the book). But in most ways, the film had no bearing at all on how I felt about the book. For one, the book isn't chronological, while the film is. This made for some interesting reading, despite having seen the film, examining the cyclical structure, how Kundera returns several times to events from alternate points of view--and then realizing how the filmmaker would have had to put all of this in "order."

Second, this is Kundera writing, and how could I have thought the movie could even come close to exhausting the book? The thing about Kundera--and I write this in regard to his novels (I found his story collection somewhat disappointing, as well as his book on writing)--is that his work is as much philosophy as it is fiction. He proposes particular ideas, and then he works them out with his characters. In this way, he makes concrete what other philosophers fail to, and what's more, he complicates whatever he has to say in interesting ways.

A major theme of this novel is borne in its title. Kundera spends a good chunk of the text discussing the way to happiness and fulfillment. Is the better life the light one or the heavy? Happy lives are carefree--but such would mean they lack depth or great meaning, which are themselves means toward happiness. Heavy responsibilities weigh us down, take away from our ability to enjoy things, and yet, they are what makes things meaningful and thus lend to our happiness. And so, which is it? Or is it some kind of combination? Or do we even get a choice of one or the other?

As Kundera points out at some point, all meaning in life is eventually robbed from us through death. I love this line: "Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion." The idea is that our memories, our history, is turned into some kind of silly amusement for generations that come after us, trinkets that are sold in the market; rides, restaurants, and theme parks that tourists gamble away time in. These are the means by which future generations remember us, the means by which we stick around, and they are also the means by which we are forgotten. Eventually, even the trinkets go away, and the amusements give way to things in more recent memory. (I think of the 1950s restaurants that were so popular in the 1980s. I think of the bar in town called 8Es, which already has its follow-up 9Ds. In one of the Back to the Future films, the main character goes to a 1980s-themed restaurant, which is all kitsch, as the filmmaker figures on the 1980s being remembered, as we were remembering the 1950s then.)

Tomas, a doctor in Czechoslovakia just before the Russian takeover in the 1960s, has love dropped in his apartment so to speak, when he meets a young server in a coffee shop. She comes to his apartment--as so many women do--but unlike most said women, she stays, because she gets sick. And then, she stays for the long term. Tomas continues his philandering ways, but the young woman, Tereza, stays with him. They go to Switzerland when the Russians come to Czechoslovakia. But Tereza wants to return home and does; Tomas, who has devoted his life to the heavy work of aiding sick people, decides to follow--and as a result, must give up his career, for the two of them were anti-Communist sympathizers who cannot be allowed to hold important jobs, even though such means the nation is not served by the medical talents that Tomas has. Tereza, one day, realizes that Tomas has had to give up everything for her--life in the city, his women, his career. She feels sad for him, guilty, but he says in fact that he is the happiest he has ever been. Weight? Lightness? Both? Does it matter?

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