Some twenty years ago, I picked up this book for the first time. Since then, it has compelled me to read it again and again, not because of the great plot or intriguing characters, but because of how Kundera is able to pull you into the story.
He forced me to think about how Unbearable Lightness really can be. What that means is hard to explain but abundantly clear when you’ve finished the book. There are moments it will shock you, but when you take the time to think, you realise that shock comes from recognition.
When I was asked which book I would recommend for reading, this one was front and centre in my mind. While it’s not the newest book I own (in these fast times something is old soon), it is by far the best one. The only one that kept me thinking. Psychology and philosophy delivered in an alternate way.
The book is set in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring, the Soviet Invasion and its aftermath, late 60s, early 70s. It revolves around two couples: Tomas, a hedonistic surgeon who seeks a certain freedom, or lightness in his life, and his innocent, sad wife Tereza, who’s the heavy counterweight holding Tomas down, or so he feels. The other two are more a symbiotic union than a true couple. Sabina is Tomas’ mistress, a free-spirited painter, who has another lover, the Swiss professor Franz. He is her counterweight, while she really is a better fit for Tomas, the man she feels the heavy burden of lightness with.
While they are all intellectual people, they struggle with the emotional side of life and find that many of their premises are not what they thought them to be. That what is light is in fact what is holding them down, while what they imagined to be a burden is what frees them and gives them the lightness they so desperately seek.
This book is not so much about plot or characters, because none of those are truly fleshed out, but more used as a vehicle for the author to show us his view on life, philosophy, and psychology.
It’s a love story under the strain of an oppressive regime, the show of how the weight of being can be lightened by living, and the lightness of a carefree life can in fact be a heavy burden.
Kundera doesn’t beat around the bush. He shows us exactly how he perceives matters, and gets up close and personal while doing that.
If you don’t mind having your philosophy laced with a little erotic hedonism, this is a definite must-read that will make you come back for more.
“There is no perfection, only life” – Milan Kundera