Lauren Rabaino

It could be argued that any novelist who puts the word “unbearable” in a book’s title is almost tempting a reader to pass it by. Indeed, a copy of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which I bought for a buck in a used bookstore, sat on my shelf for more than a year before I finally decided to give it a chance. Three-hundred and fourteen pages later, I had not only been given a vivid lesson in not judging a book by its title, I also felt as though I had gained a deeper, more poignant perspective from which to view the world around me. I have saved Kundera’s work for my last column on the principle of saving the best for last, as it is one of the finest, most moving and thought-provoking works I’ve ever read.

Published in 1984, when Communism still ruled Eastern Europe, “Unbearable” is ostensibly the story of four lovers, two men and two women, who drift in and out of each other’s lives as their Czechoslovakian homeland is invaded by the Russians. Of the four, the central characters are Tomas, a womanizer who is forced by political pressure to abandon his medical career and become a window washer, and Tereza, a photographer who tolerates Tomas’s affairs while longing only to be the sole woman in his life.

I say the book is “ostensibly” the story of these four characters because Kundera structures his novel less like a traditional narrative and more like a wide-ranging but always graceful and melodic symphony, freely exploring and commenting upon any number of leitmotifs, including the nature of love, lust, political oppression and the struggle against it, chance, theology, the way people’s differing pasts often cause them to misperceive each other in the present moment, and, in an especially poetic passage, the moral implications of man’s treatment of animals. The book has been called “a novel of ideas” and, indeed, its philosophical musings are so beautifully rendered you may find yourself occasionally refraining from continuing to read while you reflect on some of the idiosyncratic but insightful perspectives sprinkled throughout its pages.

Very well, you might say, but what’s stopping the book from becoming a platform for a gifted, possibly flashy, writer to show off his philosophical prowess at the expense of emotional engagement? It’s a fair question, and the answer is Kundera’s underlying warmth not just for his characters and their struggles but, by implication, us and ours as well. Kundera can see the writing on the wall that his characters are often blind to, but this leads to compassion for them, not condescension toward them. For the unbearable lightness of being is that each of us can make our choices only once in this lifetime, with no guarantee of the outcome. Therefore, our choices are not heavy, but light as a feather, and Kundera writes of this existential dilemma with such grace, beauty and conviction you may never see the world in quite the same way again.

Quentin Dunne is a psychology graduate student and Mustang Daily book columnist.

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