Book Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Title: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Author: Milan Kundera, Michael Heim (Translator)

Genre: Classics, Philosophy, Romance, Literary Fiction, 20th Century, Czech Literature, Historical Fiction, Contemporary

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Published: October 27, 2009 (Original: November 1984)

Page Amount: 320 pages

Blurb From Goodreads: In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera tells the story of a young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing and one of his mistresses and her humbly faithful lover. This magnificent novel juxtaposes geographically distant places, brilliant and playful reflections, and a variety of styles to take its place as perhaps the major achievement of one of the world’s truly great writers.

Why Read: In case you haven’t heard, I started a book club on Goodreads and this was our pick for December/November. I chose this as a potential option for readers to pick, and low-and-behold this was the democratic choice. Beyond that, I absolutely love Eastern Europe, and thought it would be useful to read some original Czech literature.

Review: Normally I am a kind reviewer, and find it difficult to give books lower than a 4 out of a 5 star scale. However, with the Unbearable Lightness of Being, it seemed all too easy. Not only did the framing of the book strike me in the wrong way, but there was something about taking these enormous abstract notions of “Einmal is keinmal” and “Es muss sein” and applying them to individuals that felt off. This could be my over-simplified Western mind talking, of course, but as a reviewer – I feel it my duty to say that I did not enjoy reading this book.

The characters are reasonably well-developed, but it comes to the point where the reader knows so much depth about each character, that they cease to be people with whom one can empathize. Take Tomas for instance. He falls in love with Tereza, which is all well and fine. However, he continues to take mistress, because as he tells her – being in love is different than making love. The only character I felt connected to was Karenin, the dog. Until the end, he was a presence that I looked forward to in every chapter.

The plot… Can I even say there is a plot? The juxtaposition between the characters lives and their backstories made it a little difficult for me to follow. Take into account the philosophical transgressions in every chapter, and it was almost impossible to keep track of everything. As a reader, I would agree with the author at one point, but follow his thread of thought to a completely different conclusion that I definitely did not agree with.

Perhaps the saving grace of the book is the style of writing. While I have many complaints of structure, the ultimate writing is beautifully done. Some sentences are heart-achingly stunning. Another point in favor of the book is the description of communism and life in general. Although focusing in on key points in the book, I can find many things I highly disliked, the manner in which communism in Czechoslovakia is described is not one of them. It takes the idea of self-retraction for one, and builds it into the whole system of cowardice and bravery for one’s own beliefs, simply to show that not everyone can be cowed. The last section of the book, focusing on their life in the country is also very well done. I will not spoil anything, but I found perhaps the most touching moments in the book to take place here.

So yes- although I’m giving it a 3/5 star rating, I would recommend people to read it, if you’re willing to put up with philosophizing. I am glad that I read it, regardless- and everyone should have the opportunity to read books that they may not like.

Rating: 3/5 Stars

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