Great novels vary in infinite ways, but undoubtedly, each of them offers its readers a glimpse of the mystery of the human condition. Milan Kundera’s modern classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being certainly falls into this category. Also, like many great novelists, Kundera not only exposes his readers to a better understanding of modern life, he offers a solution for the inevitably sad truths he reveals. For this reason, The Unbearable Lightness of Being now ranks among my all-time favorite novels.
The novel begins by presenting Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return. With this theory, Nietzsche argues that “everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum”. Kundera then places that theory in opposition with Parmenides’s theory of life as “light”. The author uses these concepts to posit that every person has only one opportunity at life, and because this life occurs only once in the grand scheme of the universe, it is intrinsically meaningless. The German phrase “einmal ist keinmal” (“once is nothing”) is invoked frequently throughout the novel to summarize this point. With these notions as the backdrop, Kundera then begins to weave his narrative of four interconnected characters, two of which I will discuss, whose lives aid in the demonstration of these concepts.
Early in the novel, which takes place in 1968 during what is now referred to as the Prague Spring, we are introduced to Tomas, a recently divorced surgeon who, as an unapologetic womanizer, is very pleased to have returned to bachelorhood. Tomas subscribes emphatically to the theory that “once is nothing” and feels he is living life as it should be lived as he takes pleasure in work and women. Tereza, however, comes of age in an environment that thwarted any expressions of individualism or intellectualism, and as an adult, is in a constant search for “greater beauty”. As a result of a series of fortuitous circumstances, Tomas and Tereza meet, fall in love and eventually marry. However, because Tomas refuses to renounce his philandering ways and Tereza continues to hold to an ideal of fidelity, the marriage is in a constant state of discord.
Due to the political climate in Prague and his inability to condone the Communist regime, Tomas’s career suffers a series of serious setbacks, eventually relegating him to the position of window washer. The result of which is Tomas’s realization that his true chosen path in life, his “es muss sein” (“it must be”), is his career in medicine. Tomas’s logic tells him that his success and ability in the field are the result of choice and hard work, unlike the series of chance encounters that lead to his relationship with Tereza. However, as the end of the novel draws near, Tomas, living peacefully in the country with Tereza, finds a purer brand of happiness he hasn’t experienced before. Despite the fact that his love for Tereza does not fall in accordance with his view of the world (he did not choose her; he is not sexually exclusive with her), Tomas is more at peace with her than ever before in his life.
I am very glad to have finally read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This novel meets every expectation I have of a “great novel” and has left me thinking about it long after the final page.