Review: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera [1984]

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come. – p. 7

Where to begin with this story? On the outset, the story follows four main characters who are attempting to separate love from sex and love from lust. Narrated by an anonymous character who watches the lives of the protagonists, we follow these characters as they struggle with love, fate and the meaning of life against the backdrop of the Russian invasion into Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Tomas and Tereza is the main couple. Tomas, a surgeon, has managed to separate love and sex. He has many, many lovers and cannot, or do not, refrain from infidelities when he couples up with Tereza who shows up on his doorstep unannounced one day. There is no doubt that he loves her and cares for he but he also periodically resents Tereza, comparing her to the baby Moses who floats down the river in a basket and is rescued. Despite the love, he cannot justify why he should stop having sex, and only sex, with other women.

Tereza is a complicated character. She is not jealous of Tomas’ infidelities in the typical way. Coming from a traumatic childhood, where she was hated by her mother, who laughed at Tereza’s modesty about her body, and was sexually abused by her step-father, Tereza believes that her body is special and unique despite having had it abused so by her parents and betrayed by Tomas who seeks other bodies.

Sabina is an artist and also one of Tomas’ long-time lovers. During the invasion, she escapes to Geneva where she later begins an affair with Franz, an unhappily married academic. Sabina admits to herself that she has almost a fetish, an insatiable lust, for betraying everybody and everything.

Betrayal. From tender youth we are told by father and teacher that betrayal is the most heinous offence imaginable. But what is betrayal? Betrayal means breaking ranks. Betrayal means breaking ranks and going off into the unknown. Sabina knew of nothing more magnificent than going off into the unknown. – p. 89

While many people feel burdened by the weight of worries and actions, Sabina presents an anomaly and is burdened by the feeling of incredible lightness.

Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being. – p. 121

After betraying her lovers, her country, her friends and even within her art work – Sabina has nothing left to betray and feels entirely empty, ironically burdened by her emptiness.

The weight of responsibility and of duty weigh down heavily on these characters. They cannot make a right decision and it is impossible to know if they do because this is the life they will ever lead.

Lightness of Being is an enthralling read. This review doesn’t cover all aspects of the story – the layers of love and sex, abuse, philosophy, metaphysics, society and its issues and more contemporary problems like the invasion of countries – Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, Cambodia – and the history of the Cold War, secret police and the Soviet Union. The characters are filled with depth, although I didn’t like Tomas so much, and there are some lovely bookish bits here. However, I think my most favourite character of all in Karenin, Tomas and Tereza’s dog, and who is named after Anna Karenina. Her presence is just so heartwarming and lovable.