Happy Holidays! I wanted the chance to get in one more review before having to put together my always-difficult Best of 2009 list, which I do every year, but am actually choosing to publish this year, mostly because I’m running out of room in my “Best of” journal! And so, using these rare quiet moments (presents have successfully been open and everybody seems to have sunken into their pre-dinner Golf-inspired comas) I’m SO psyched to be reviewing Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a book that is entirely based in opposition to Nietzsche’s theory that all events in life have already occurred, and will continue to occur for all time. Although the theoretical side is a little bit to encapsulate, I found a pretty good description from Wikipedia (I really HATE copying and pasting from other sites, but in this case I think it’s the most succinct method of summation): “The German expression Einmal ist keinmal encapsulates “lightness” so: “what happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all”; if concluded logically, life ultimately is insignificant. Hence, because decisions do not matter, they are rendered light, because they do not cause personal suffering. Yet, simultaneously, the insignificance of decisions — our being — causes us great suffering, perceived as the unbearable lightness of being consequent to one’s awareness of life occurring once and never again.” This principle is explored through four central characters in the book, three of whom are somewhat entertwined.
Tomas is a successful surgeon who, although in love with Tereza, can’t stop his philandering ways, especially with his mistress Sabina. Eventually Tomas makes the choice to settle down with Tereza, leaving Sabina free to move from Prague (where the book is set during the Communist period, spanning from 1968 to 1984, roughly) to Zurich and eventually to America. Along the way, she takes another lover, Franz. Tomas and Tereza remain largely in Prague, where Tomas loses his ability to practice medicine due to “communist sympathies”. While the plot of the book isn’t necessarily the most quick-moving (in all honesty, not a whole lot of stuff really happens, plot wise – a lot of moving about and lamenting about lost possibilities, but not necessarily a lot of action) the book fulfills its main purpose, which is to pose an alternative philosophical stance.
While I will say that I haven’t exactly pinpointed where I stand on the whole “life’s choices matter/don’t matter” debate, I will say that Kundera made a strong case for the reason why, ultimately, our lives are full of an unbearable lightness. Perhaps one of the strongest scenes in the book is where Tomas outlines six random occurrences that ended up introducing him to Tereza, events such as the emergence of a rare brain disease in the village where Tereza lived, and the head surgeon being unable to make the surgery and sending Tomas instead. In other words, “it had taken six chance happenings to push Tomas towards Tereza, as if he had little inclination to go to her on his own”. It’s a thought process that I’ve been toying around with a lot lately – the idea that our choices aren’t really our choices, and are perhaps predetermined, although that seems like a bit of a strong word. It’s a thought process that soon becomes a slippery slope to bigger philosophical questions, so it’s a path I usually take caution from going to far down, at least until I have some serious time to devote to thinking through. That’s probably the one issue that I had with the book – it oftentimes seemed to be denser than I was expecting, requiring time to really think through some of the deeper issues.
It’s an absolutely wonderful book, and so I recommend that you read it immediately, if for no other reason than to expand the way you consider what it means to be human and how our choices affect that humanity. I would recommend reading it in as few readings as possible (as opposed to really spreading it out) because I think that’ll make it easier to follow who all the characters are and how they’re related to each other – which got a little confusing, considering I would put it down every now and then for a few days and be semi-lost by the time I returned. But please read it, especially if you have the time to work through the book’s – and your own – thoughts.
Coming up is the Best of 2009 book list and a LOT of reviews I just didn’t have time to getting around to when I was going through finals week (which, as far as I’m concerned, should be added as another level to Dante’s hell). Happy reading and even happier holidays!