Naturally she had not realized it until now. How could she have? The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives us our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
Sometimes, the books you end up picking up on a whim end up being your favorites. That’s how I stumbled upon Murakami. I was at the library one day and randomly picked up 1Q84, unaware that Murakami would dominate my reading habits for the next four (!) years and counting. Similarly, I was aware of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by virtue of its famed Magritte-esque bowler hat cover art, but I didn’t know too much about the book other than the cover.
In a way, I’m glad I had so little knowledge of the book. In a world where we’re constantly bombarded by five-minute long movie trailers and teaser chapters, it felt lovely to be bowled over (pun intended) by a work I had little to no expectations for. Funnily enough, this novel contained many of the elements I look for in a book: believable characters, an interesting plot, masterful prose, and insight into a political situation. The novel revolves around a group of characters during the Prague Spring, narrating the political situation in Prague at the time, the complex romantic and familial relationships between the characters, and Kundera’s own philosophical musings. The characters are deftly drawn, each with their own motivations and justifications, and are lifelike, lovable, and imperfect.
One particular aspect of the book I found refreshing was the way Kundera explores philosophical ideas in the text. At times these ideas belong to the characters, and at other times, these ideas are explained by an unnamed narrator, presumably Kundera himself, although even in this case, the ideas relate back to the characters or plot. One of my pet peeves is when an author feels the need to blatantly declare the novel’s theme or message, without any analysis or interpretation required by the reader. One summer while staying at my uncle’s house, I read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and I was bored by the book’s preachiness, as well as the obviousness of its morals and idea. Often, books that employ this overt method of conveying morals and ideas do it in a way that is lacking in creativity or originality, bogging down the narrative and the very ideas they were meant to bestow upon the reader. There’s no sense of reward or enjoyment when morals are just handed to you. However, the whimsical and personal nature of Kundera’s prose, as well as the originality and subversiveness of his ideas, simply worked. I found myself constantly marking down page numbers so that I could return to and reread these passages.
In my post on Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, I discussed what it means for a work to be a classic: relatable outside the context of the time and place it was written, provides insight into its time and place, and allows the reader to derive greater insight with multiple readings. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, without a doubt, a classic. The ideas around relationships, romantic and otherwise, are just as applicable to our relationships today as they were when the novel was written. Despite my limited knowledge on the Prague Spring, the book was easy to read and understand, while also expanding my knowledge of the history of Czechoslovakia.
YES OR NO?: YES. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a perfect read. Filled with realistic characters, believable character development, history, and philosophy – this is probably my favorite book of the year.