When war, ideology, history, and philosophy are woven together into a splendid narrative, then we have Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Set in 1968’s conflicting Czech Republic, it’s a story of love and unattached sexual relationships between characters whose personal nature is weighted heavily down with selfishness, with a plot carrying some fortuities. By way of introduction, Kundera begins the novel with a philosophy representing the main idea of the whole text, which is the unbearable lightness of being.
Written from the third person’s point of view, the story begins with Tomas fortuitously coming across Tereza. Saying that they love each other wouldn’t be too much, only that they never realize how strong nor how much their love is. Both Tomas and Tereza are too busy satisfying their egos and gripping their pasts, oblivious to what they have and driving themselves into believing that their relationship is all nonsense. Having married to Tereza under the pressure of love and Tereza’s marital principle, Tomas never gives up his promiscuous behaviour, thinking of love and sex as two completely separate things. His ego and forever sexual lust brings him back to Sabina, his long-term mistress who understands his always unattached need of sex. However, it’s not long until Sabina meets Franz and love instantly sparks between them.
Franz loves Sabina so much that he leaves his wife. Unfortunately, this is the point where they disagree over the discretion of their relationship. Sabina never wants to change her status as Franz’s secret mistress, as she has once been to Tomas. Having Franz unable to fulfil her principled demand to remain in secret, Sabina decides to leave Franz and is then bound for America. In desperation, Franz turns his attention to a coke-bottle-glassed girl, one of his students at the university. They have some kind of enjoyable affairs, without him realizing how that girl only can make him happy and console him. But it’s too late for him to know the fact when he wanders to Cambodia in vain search of Sabina’s shadow. Ironically, at the end of his life, it is his wife who is beside him and claims his body.
All the characters here bring me full circle: love and sex are sometimes, somehow, not in one union. Sex being associated with freedom and merely biological needs is reflected in Tomas’ character and nature, in how he fulfils himself through unattached sexual intercourse with many women. On the other hand, love is more related to commitment and open declaration, which are naturally demanded by Tereza and Franz. The characters of Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz are somewhat means of conflicting these two things, therefore there is no way they can exist side by side.
Kundera has it in him to produce an epic contemporary literary work. He may not have the best plot in the century, but he certainly has the best concoction in which history, ideology, philosophy, and war are mixed together and spiced up with love and lust in a bowl of splendid narrative. My only hindrance in reading this story comprehensively is its philosophical value. Frankly speaking, and I’m not wishing you to spare me from your calling me half-witted, I cannot still up to this point decipher the philosophy of “the unbearable lightness of being” and how it is related to the story being told and all its numerous complicated contents. And I cannot pretend that I do, either.
Nevertheless, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is still very much mouth-gaping. Its historical plot and complicated relationships between the characters inside are just captivating. It may not be an easy read, as I’ve proven it myself, but even so, you may not want to miss this, because this novel has it all.