Well, he got the ‘unbearable’ part right!

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

 This book is on BBC’s list of 100 books to Read Before You Die. It comes highly praised as a literary classic. But unless the Sunday Times was being sarcastic; or the Beeb placed it on the wrong list (it was supposed to be on 100 books that’ll make you want to die), then I can only disagree. Vehemently.

The ‘novel’ goes back and forth between the stories of Tomas, Tereza, Franz and Sabina, four Europeans whose adult lives are tied together by Tomas’ and Franz’s infidelities. Kundera doesn’t give the reader a chance to get to know these people. I knew about them, but I felt no real connection. I found it hard to picture faces and places; everything had the consistency of weak tea.

 There is only continuity, but by no means sense, to be found in the re-appearance of Sabina’s grandfather’s bowler hat, of Tereza’s birthmark and other such oddities.

Kundera’s mistake is that he constantly interjects, supplying his own views/ telling the reader what to think, instead of merely showing us through the characters’ actions. A book that steadily narrates, with very little dialogue, it’s hard enough to follow in the first place.

Or perhaps Kundera meant for his characters to be only secondary to his own philosophical views? To his reactions to Nietzsche and Kafka and Freud? But then, why parade it as a ‘novel’?

Kundera uses these 300 odd pages to muse on questions of the nature of love, of life under oppressive rule and of excrement. Yes. And while some writers might be able to do this successfully, he doesn’t. Man is a cow parasite, he tells us, (though he’s probably talking about a certain percent of humanity only) and goes on to say that attitude towards animals is a fundamental moral test of Man. We’ve failed. If this sort of pretentious muck is your bag, then by all means pick this book up.

I’m just glad I borrowed it from someone.

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3 responses »

  1. I think sometimes it is not so much the story as the delivery–and Kundera’s delivery is phenomenal. I guess different people expect different things from books, but the key thing to remember is that there is not just one way to tell a story. Perhaps Kundera lightly touches on the characters to show that personalities do not matter so much when we are examining universal feelings, and yes, philosophies of life.

    I read this book a while ago, and even if I cannot tell you now what the plot detailed, I can tell you that the impression of a fantastic writer remains indelibly imprinted on my mind.

    • Interesting take, Princess. But this book was pure torture for me, much too pretentious! I have read books where it was clearly more about universality, less about characters (The Amnesiac comes to mind). Agree to disagree, perhaps? 🙂

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