You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a multi-layered novel mixing philosophy and a good story. At the core is the story of a man and a woman as they fall in love, get married, and go through life's troubles. Kundera moves easily from the specific to the general, expanding the characters' situations to the human condition.

The central story is about Tomas, a doctor in Prague, and Tereza, the young woman who captures his heart. Tomas is divorced and enjoys the company of many women. He does not intend his fling with her to become serious, but falls in love with her when she becomes sick and must stay in his bed for days. Even though Tomas marries Tereza, he keeps seeing his mistresses, especially a local artist named Sabina. This causes Tereza distress, yet he cannot stop seeing them.

They face real trouble when the Soviets invade Czechoslovakia. Tomas and Tereza flee to Zurich, but Tereza soon realizes she is too unhappy so she move back to Prague and takes their dog Karenin with her. Tomas discovers that he too is unhappy without her, so he sacrifices his nice job and his freedom to return to Prague to be with her. This is the central decision in the novel. Tomas chooses Tereza over his career, his freedom, his whole life. In Zurich he would have had freedom and a great job in medicine. In Prague he is subject to the whims of the Communist regime, and he is not free to be a doctor unless he keeps quiet about the government.

But he writes a scathing commentary against the Czech citizens who collaborate with the occupiers. He compares them to Oedipus, who put out his eyes after he realized the terrible crimes he had committed. He believes that those who collaborate with the Communist regime will someday see that they have made terrible crimes and should put out their eyes. This article comes to haunt him when he refuses to renounce it and his supervisor is forced to fire him, and he must become a window washer. Yet even as his station falls, his fortunes with women rise. His new occupation allows him to meet women for sex.

Tomas has stood up for his beliefs and suffered, but is soon faced with another decision. His estranged son visits him to request his signature on a petition to free political prisoners. Tomas is inclined to sign it, but he realizes that it is a pointless move that will only harm him. Here the author crystallizes the dilemma of living in a repressive country. Everyone understands that protesting against the state is pointless, even though it is the only option they have to fight back. The petition that Tomas refuses to sign is doubly pointless, since it is protesting the imprisonment of other protesters. If the government were legitimate and just, there would be no need to protest in the first place.

Tereza also experiments with having an affair, but becomes distressed and paranoid that her lover was only an agent of the secret police. Eventually Tomas and Tereza and Karenin move to the country and live a simple life. They realize that their love for each other is so strong that they are happy despite their loss of freedom and comfort.

Kundera creates a strong philosophical novel out of the story of the two lovers. He draws on psychology as he shows Tereza's past with her mother, Tomas's need to be with other women, and Sabina's desire to replicate her love for Tomas with another man. Politics are a force throughout the novel as the characters find themselves at the mercy of powerful forces. Kundera relates the characters' situation to the needs and desires in all of us. The experiences are deeper, more personal and yet more universal. A

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Blogger Claire Faver said...

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of my most favourite books of all time. You're right in that politics is certainly the "glue" that binds all of the characters together. I've also always found the relationship between Thomas and Tereza an interesting one. I think the way they just "get" each other is really fascinating, and also the fact that even though Thomas is a huge womanizer, he just doesn't have the strength to leave Tereza. Even though the ending of the book is sad on the surface, it's optimistic in that they died together.

11:48 PM, December 05, 2011  

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