How should life be taken – with a weighted heart or in a flippant manner? Well, justifiably the book Unbearable Lightness of Being opens with a discussion of Nietzsche's philosophy of eternal return – everything that has already happened will recur ad infinitum, and Parmenides's understanding of life focusing on heaviness as opposed to lightness.
While the story revolves around the binary of light and weighted 'beings' of two sets of couples – Tomas and Tereza, and, Sabina and Franz, it also depicts the Soviet occupation in Czechoslovakia during the late 1960s. Set in the backdrop of the cold war this modern classic has given insights into the struggles of the characters living under communism.
Taken as a whole, the human existence is steeped in uncertainty. Kundera as a superb storyteller narrates the story, but offers an insightful observation about life in general.
This book unleashes the pain of being compassionate. All the other little components – lily in the bathroom window, heavy suitcase and a copy of Anna Karenina on Tereza's hand and the couple's dog Karenin work as the catalyst for heaping more compassion onto the characters and the events.
It is interesting to note that how the promiscuous protagonist Tomas, a famous surgeon, changes his way of life over time for the sake of Tereza – his beloved. One who, it is alleged, gets involved in 'erotic friendships' frequently.
He has a chequered past – he got divorced and lost the custody of his only son. Later he falls in love with Tereza, completely and compassionately.
Tereza enters Tomas' life with a heavy suitcase which represents her being emotionally burdened. Knowing the fact that Tomas is a promiscuous person, Tereza continues to strive to have Tomas only for herself and fails repeatedly.
There are days when she is desperate to understand the lightness of Tomas' life and steps forward to experiment sexually (to be like Tomas) but fails miserably. The time when Tomas changes his way of being light and focuses more on Tereza, she sets aside the weight of her emotion. At this point, a balance in their life is struck.
Another character, Sabina, Tomas' favourite 'erotic Friend', a brilliant painter, represents the lightness of the life. Hence, being the epitome of kitsch, she takes pleasure in betrayal. She even leaves her lover Franz for freedom.
Franz, a Geneva professor and an idealist, got engaged in an extramarital relationship with Sabina. Though he ultimately leaves his wife for Sabina, Sabina betrays him as mentioned earlier. Kundera uses all these characters meticulously to explain the binary of the lightness and weight.
Throughout the novel Kundera argues, if it is possible to live life without the burden of committed relationships, and whether that makes life lighter anyway or not. Lightness here insinuates the lack of a certain intensity in life and living for moments only. On the other hand, though the weight is unbearable it asks for having meaning in life. But, at the end, it is found that the balance is what life requires.
Ultimately, lightness versus weight is a key dichotomy that cannot be resolved that easily. The two parallel sets of relationships in the book show how love can nurture a person to become compassionate towards life or how the burden of it can weigh one down.
Unbearable Lightness of Being can fairly be dubbed as a cerebral novel which demands close reading. The language the writer uses is simple and lucid, but a profusion of intertextual and theoretical references makes one go slow. Whatever you do, do not go for 1980s movie adaptation of its namesake before you read it, unless you want to be left with a disappointed heart.