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Book Review

Title: Unbearable Lightness of Being
Author: Milan Kundera
Reviewed by: Geetika Kaw Kher

My interest in Kundera’s works lies not only in his ability to trespass the conventional narrative mode but in his ingenuity to weave the story in an intelligible and extremely thought provoking manner. His move away from Realism, to formulate a more abstract and personal language recalls the visual artists of 20th C. who shunned all kinds of realism. His theoretical framework instantly reminds us of Kafka and other existential writers who have deeply problematized the role of human agency in their works.

‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ though published some years back continues to be read and pondered upon for its philosophical speculations on post World war II anxieties in Eastern Europe. The book though a work of fiction underlines the absurdities of life and gives us a clear cut glimpse in the life of the author himself. What is extremely fascinating about Kundera is his belief that a person can write only about himself, hence making all his books his different autobiographies.

One of his main characters Tomas, a doctor by profession, forced to quit his practice and reduced to a position of a window washer because of his radical writing, mirrors Kundera’s expulsion from his teaching post and banning of his books by Soviet Regime. About his characters Kundera has a wonderful observation. He says that “characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about.” Hence there can be seen a definite pattern in the subservience of his characters to his will and his clear cut first hand voice permeating through the entire book.

His characters move, act, suffer, feel jealous, betray and get betrayed to produce various ironical situations on which they have absolutely no control. While on one hand the book explores the personal lives of its characters, their strengths, weaknesses insecurities and dilemmas it also manages to give an overall picture of the occupation of Czechoslovakia and its impact on people.

His way of looking at history as a ‘Joke’ (incidentally title of his first novel) forms the main underlining theme of the work. It is not that he finds history funny but it is the general belief of people that they can make history or record history which he mocks at. Clearly disillusioned by Communism of which he was the die hard adherent he is repulsed by the ‘Grand March’ and all such public frenzy. By forwarding the futility of human endeavor he brings out the aimlessness of such movements. Most striking example he gives is that of Tereza, a photographer who clicks the photographs of the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia by putting her life in danger and sharing her rolls with other reporters so that the misery of her nation is highlighted. Later when Czech forces give way to Russian troops these same photographs are used by Russian secret police to nab the rebels. Suddenly an act of heroic patriotism is transformed into a tool for spying on other patriots. Realizing the irony which Kundera himself calls the essential Kitsch in our lives, she vows never to touch a camera again.

Here the author goes further and addresses the notion of ‘guilt’ and he discusses whether or not people should be held responsible for their anti agency. Being an active member of the failed radical ‘Prague Spring’ movement, he sees all organized movements as futile and his point of view comes out clearly in the section of the book titled ‘The Grand March’. Interestingly he brings out the shallow argument between a French doctor and an American actress, both on a mission to help Cambodian residents but having absolutely no feelings for the people. The horror of the situation is brought out beautifully when one of the photographers steps on a mine and dies while photographing the crying actress. More than his sudden death it’s the triumphant smile on the face of the actress which brings out the ridiculousness of the whole situation.

Currently living in France and being deprived of Czechoslovakian citizenship we can understand Kundera’s work better in the context of the failed movement to which he lost his position and country to. His bitterness at what could not be achieved forms the essence of his books and I feel is his way to get at the world at large which can always.


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