Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.

Sometimes you make up your mind about something without knowing why, and your decision persists by the power of inertia. Every year it gets harder to change.

Milan Kundera's effortless literary style leads the read through the novel with a sort of weightless momentum. And yet, there is still the sense that every word, character, and setting is of such importance that you cannot help but weigh it all, thinking heavily upon every aspect of the book. Kundera has masterfully managed to raise his characters into the dimension of reality to such an extent that it is easy to forget that the book is a work of fiction. We are only reminded of this when the author discusses the conception of each character inserts his commentary about each of their lives as though he is not their creator, but a mere observer like his readers.

Kundera touches upon several different streams of philosophical thought, including Nietzsche's idea of eternal return and Descartes' machina animata, and discusses various conceptions of time, comparing the perceptions of human and dog. Indeed, the gender-confused St. Bernard-German Shepherd mix Karenin (named for the husband of Anna Karenina) has her own opinions on time and being.

Set in Prague during the Russian occupation, the novel observes the characters of Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz wage personal, political, and moral wars. Immediately, the characters are not entirely likable. As the story progresses, however, I found myself looking upon them with some form of sympathy or compassion. Kundera himself professes that his characters cross the lines that he would not dare cross, and so I came to view the characters as some kind of Jungian shadow-self. I viewed them with a mixture of disgust, pity, and awe. I wanted to condemn them and praise them. They stirred within me a type of internal conflict, between the light and dark aspects of my personality. Therein lies the value of this book. It causes one to turn inward, to examine oneself from the inside out and evaluate the mark we make on the world and on others. In doing so, we realize the interconnectedness of every life and the impact such connection can leave.

The theme of life and death pervades the novel, and Kundera examines the lives of his characters in terms of life, death, and the lightness or weight of each. If you strip each character down to their bare soul, if you lift them out of the path of their lives, you realize that the plot is not so important as Kundera's commentary and interspersed philosophical revelations. By focusing on plot, setting, character development, and all those other standard elements of critique, we miss the heart of the novel. It is about life, about questioning one's purpose and manner of living, and about concerning oneself with virtue and vice. We miss the person of Kundera, for he manages to insert himself as a true presence in the novel, refusing to remain a simple observant narrator. As such, we insert ourselves into the novel and into the shadow personalities we fear may manifest in ourselves.

On the whole, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a compelling read that deserves deep reflection. And, all things considered, it makes me concerned for the film adaptation. Even before I had reached the halfway point of the novel, I was questioning how anyone could possibly transform it into a film because such a large portion of the book is observation, reflection, and thought. Certainly Kundera has created dynamic characters and pushes the plot forward with easy momentum. A film, I fear, therefore may fail to grasp the true depths of this novel. But, I do intend on seeing the film and shall postpone judgment until then. 

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