Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Like Jerzy Kozinski, Milan Kundera was hugely important back in the ’80s, when this book first appeared. Both came from Eastern Europe and represented survival and resistance. Both had something profound to say about the human condition and our ability to withstand oppression, violence, pointless abuse, and even mind control. We ate it up.
I remember devouring the book back then and loving it, and over the years its key tag phrases stuck with me, refreshed by occasional rereadings: Einmal ist keinmal (that which happens only once might was well not have happened at all) and Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein! (Must it be? Yes, it must be.) Kundera, like a popular college professor, guides the reader through the meaning of these ideas in life, while musing about a thousand other things as the book progresses, such as how love between two people appears to occur only because of an almost impossible series of coincidences. He talks about lightness and heaviness too, in a philosophical sense, taking up Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return as a way of examining what life really is. Lightness is not necessarily a good thing.
Happiness, he concludes near the end, is the yearning for repetition. And when he says it you’ll recall the happiness of the novel’s dog, Karenin, as she (yes, he is a she) carries her roll home from the bakery every day. Tomas, the adulterous “hero” of the book, seems to agree, savoring life in the country after losing his position as a doctor after the Russians take over Czechoslovakia. He finds he loves the repetition of his new menial labors, and the repetition of loving only his wife Tereza, having cheated on her mercilessly when he was a professional in Prague and Zurich.
There are so many ideas floated in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that it can easily be read as a philosophical tract that uses fictional characters to illustrate them. In fact, the intrusion of the author into the narrative is the thing that really distinguishes the book, and if you’re like me you welcome Kundera’s asides and digressions. He’s working things out. Trying to understand why his country had to be derailed by authoritarianism. Es muss sein.
His riff on kitsch alone is worth the price of the book. And don’t get him started on “totalitarian kitsch”! Utopian dreams can be dangerous.
Read E. L. Doctorow’s contemporaneous review to get a feel for how this novel was seen at the time, and in spite of Doctorow’s occasional digs at the technique and ideas of the book, I don’t think he’d be too surprised that it became a classic of western literature.