Thursday, May 02, 2013

Book 51: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This is one of those titles I've always heard of and felt like I should read but never actually got around to.  I had no idea what the novel was about and kept confusing this novel and its author with Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated and The Unbearable Lightness of Being sound like titles that could be from the same person, right?).  However, I've been trying to read more translated work this year and this fit in well with that goal.  With that title, I have to say I was expecting a rather heavy read, but I was pleasantly surprised by just how approachable the novel was.  That isn't too say that it doesn't touch on serious topics or that the author doesn't spend a good time engaged in philosophical discussion, but the writing itself was accessible and contained a simple story to settle it.
The two main characters are Tomas and Tereza.  He is a surgeon in Prague, and after a chance meeting (or one determined by fate depending on which character's thoughts you go with), Tereza visits him in Prague, and eventually moves there to be with him.  Tomas is a philanderer, and marriage and a relationship based on love are not what he was looking for, but he loves Tereza, and they get married. Tereza, of course, is miserable with the fact that even after marriage, Tomas continues to sleep with other women.
One of his many lovers is Sabina and she actually knows Tereza since she helped Tereza get her job at Tomas's request.  The novel follows Tomas and Tereza, Sabina and one of her other lovers whom she met in Geneva after leaving Czechoslovakia in 1968.  Tomas and Tereza also temporarily left the country, but return based on a choice Tereza makes.  Sabina remains an expatriate, while Tomas sees his status decline due to a statement he had made which the current government sees in a bad light.
Throughout the novel, Kundera goes off on various tangents, discussing the idea of light and heavy.  I liked the way he referred to language, discussing how certain words were composed in different languages and how this affected their meaning within their language.  And since I speak German, I enjoyed the bits of German thrown in here and there, such as his repeated focus on the idea that "einmal is keinmal" or once is the same as never doing it.  I also liked the way he played with the reader, referring to the novel as a novel while we were reading, acknowledging that Tomas and Tereza were characters, explaining the ideas that led to their creation.  Of course, within the context of the novel, he still gave them a backstory and family background, but to me it all seemed very tongue in cheek.  While he may have been using the characters to make a point about a belief or an idea, I still found them well developed, if sometimes eccentric or not always likable.  The other thing I liked a lot was the dictionary in the middle of the novel where he compares Sabina and Franz's definition of words.  This demonstrates just how different they are though I think only one of them realizes it.
I was pleasantly surprised by this one.  I generally avoid straight up philosophy if I can (at least straight philosophy - I can't get through Plato), but I like it when it's in small doses surrounded by a story, and this novel certainly met that requirement.  It was also nice to read something set in Prague (it's such a fun city), though I think it may be time to read an actual history of the Czech Republic and Slovakia to put everything in the proper context.

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