The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Initially I was put off by the translation. I felt it wasn’t complex enough or it lacked some sort of depth. I like reading translations because they are often vastly different from American books, many of which seem too simplistic to me. But then as I got deeper into the book I could start to understand why the language is the way it is. There’s a feel of an anthropologist looking at these particular subjects, much the way Tom Perrotta looks at the suburbs of New Jersey. So he, the narrator, feels like he exists somewhere up above and quite distant, but with binoculars and high powered cameras, and is able therefore to dig into the characters predicament(s). And then, in fact, when you’re in the fourth or fifth section, Kundera starts referring to I, meaning his narrator self. He tells us which characters he loves. And why. By this point I had no problem with the translation at all.

I’d bought this book when it was reissued in 2009 and have had it on my stack since then. What prompted me to pick it up is that someone in my writing class said that the character I am working on was much like Tomas, of this book, in that he is a womanizer (my character is gay) and doesn’t like to stay in the same bed with someone after he has climaxed. My character is the same, but describes it as a kind of gauze that lands on him and makes him want to flee. People object to this and think it depicts some sort of pathology — that he’s sick. In fact my book is called Impaired and, as my teacher Susan Breen has suggested, the novel’s question is whether or not he is, in fact, impaired, in all the meanings of that word.

Although I really liked this book and it goes deep into the politics of instilling fear (which I remembered from the movie), I did not really understand why Tomas was so sexually promiscuous. There’s a place in the book where he tells friends that he figures he has slept with about 200 women. In the gay world, of course, that number is more like 2,000. But what that had to do with all the other themes of the novel, I don’t know, and I could draw no conclusions by the end. It seemed like it was just his personality.

If we’re looking for a question that this novel is supposed to answer, it would be this, from page 5. “What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” The idea of the eternal return, he says, weighs on us because eternity is unbearable. Conversely, without anything to act as a burden on our lives, we become lighter than air and only half real.

I suppose then on the next page, Kundera says, “I have been thinking about Tomas for many years.” And goes on to tell how Tomas, a womanizer, ends up being “burdened” with Tereza, a woman he meets in a distant town. This book is essentially the story of their lives, with other lives woven into the narrative, all told against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

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