Megha's Reviews > The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
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Apr 23, 11

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Read in January, 2010


Kundera is an unconventional writer, to say the least. If you are looking for fully fleshed characters or a smooth plot, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is not for you. Kundera merely uses plot and characters as tools or examples to explain his philosophy about life, and that is what this novel is all about. He will provide a glimpse of his characters' lives, hit the pause button and then go on to explain all about what just happened, the philosophy and psychology which drives the lives of his characters and often real lives as well. In keeping with this format, the novel is fragmentary in structure. It is easy to see how a reader can get annoyed at the author's getting lost in his philosophical musings so very often. But if you can find some meaning in those, the novel just might work for you.

Decisions and dilemmas. Kundera's characters seem to searching for an elusive something, trying to find that perfect place in life where they would want to live forever. However, it is difficult to know for sure the direction in which that perfect place lies. If they find their current lives suffocating, going the other way could be liberating. But is it worth leaving behind all that will be lost? The moment they take a step ahead, they begin feeling the pull of what they had just turned their back to. Often the choice is not between perfection and imperfection, it is a trade-off.
The ability to shape our own lives, to some extent at least, is a power. Sometimes it can be a burden too. Specially when there is no way of knowing what waits for us at the next corner. Do we choose being happy today at the expense of 'What ifs..' plaguing us tomorrow? Or do we put us through an ordeal now in anticipation of it paying off in the future? What if we end up in a mess, unable to turn back?

"And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not run in circles; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition."

Sometimes we can find the right answers only in retrospect.

"We can never know what we want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come."

Kundera speaks of the irony of human life. Having only one life to live, makes the life choices difficult and onerous. It is also because of this very fact of living only one life that these life choices do not have much weight in the bigger picture. And it is this irony which causes the unbearable lightness of being. The only thing that relieves us from this unbearable lightness are fortuitous occurences which, love it or hate it, have a say in making up our lives.

"They (human lives) are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif , which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life."


Love. Kundera does not speak of love in a poetic, all-beautiful manner. What happens when one of the characters packs her life in a suitcase and goes off to be with her lover? Is there music in the air, fluttering butterflies? No. Her stomach makes a rumbling sound the moment she sees her lover...because she hasn't eaten anything all day.

"If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi's shoulders."

Finding love does not miraculously solve all their problems. Love is often accompanied by jealousy, mistrust, lies, deceit, pain. Yet they do find some strength in love and do all they can to hold on to it.

""Love is a battle," said Marie-Claude, still smiling. "And I plan to go on fighting. To the end.""


Along with these, Kundera touches upon a few other themes as well. Some of those hit the right note, while there were parts that I found trite or pretentious or simply lacking any sense. Take this for example. One of the characters sleeps with every other woman who crosses his path. Kundera philosophizes his physical desire and explains it as a deep-seated intellectual curiosity. Naah, I don't buy that. Then there were pretending-to-be-deep quotes that just went over my head.

"Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.

Umm, What?

Another thing I found odd was that the author breaks the fourth wall and tries to be defensive about the novel. He comes in and explains how he is not just telling a story, but investigating human lives. He tells us that the characters are merely figments of his imagination (so we shouldn't expect them to be realistic). He tells us that it is wrong to chide a novel for mysterious coincidences (so we shouldn't question the unrealistic events in the plot).
Agreed there are some flaws, but I would have forgiven them even without the author explaining himself away.
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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message 1: by Praj (new) - added it

Praj I think its about time to get my lazy ass to read this one.I have lost count on the times i have been ignoring this book on the shelf.


Megha Praj wrote: "I think its about time to get my lazy ass to read this one.I have lost count on the times i have been ignoring this book on the shelf."

Also, it is a fairly quick read. That should convince you to get to it even sooner :)


message 3: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Great review!


Megha Ben wrote: "Great review!"

Thanks Ben.


message 5: by tim (new)

tim Nice review, mp. Even if it makes no sense, I still like the idea of a single dangerous metaphor birthing love.


message 6: by Catachresis (new)

Catachresis Glad some people liked it, but not me. What melodramatic nonsense! Pseudo-philosophy for the sentimental if ever I saw it.


Megha There were portions which I too thought were melodramatic/pseudo-philosophical, like I said in the review. But what I got out of the book outweighed those.

I can easily see why someone may not like this book.


Tufael Chowdhury really good review. definitely going to read the novel.


Megha Tufael wrote: "really good review. definitely going to read the novel."

Thanks! Hope you enjoy the book.


Arezu awesome review.All I wanted to say. :)


Megha WindGirl wrote: "awesome review.All I wanted to say. :)"

Thank you! :)


Miss J Great review! I just finished the book and I still feel that I need time to process and scan all the ideas Kundera brought forth. Your review really sums up how I feel towards this book.


Megha Jessica wrote: "Great review! I just finished the book and I still feel that I need time to process and scan all the ideas Kundera brought forth. Your review really sums up how I feel towards this book."

Thanks Jessica. Are you planning to read any more of Kundera?


Valeria Kuznetsova Thank God I'm not the only one. I thought that I had some problems with understanding "really great novels". I even find it hard to finish the book because it is so "pretending to-be-deep". It's interesting that you still gave the book 3 out of 5 stars. I'd give it zero stars without any explanation. In my opinion, the book is not worth reading at all.


Megha Valeria wrote: "Thank God I'm not the only one."

That's one of the good things about Goodreads I guess. You can almost always find other people who agree with you.
Sounds like I might have liked this book a tad better than you did. But I can see why someone may not find it worth reading.
It didn't leave me wanting to read any more Kundera.


Rodrigo Nice review! You have put my thoughts into words.

I read Kundera's short novel Identity and liked it more than this one. Have you read anything else from this author?


Megha Rodrigo wrote: "Nice review! You have put my thoughts into words.

I read Kundera's short novel Identity and liked it more than this one. Have you read anything else from this author?"


Thanks Rodrigo. I haven't read anything else by Kundera. If I am ever in the mood for another one, sounds like I should check out Identity.


Marija Gudurić 'Love. Kundera does not speak of love in a poetic, all-beautiful manner. What happens when one of the characters packs her life in a suitcase and goes off to be with her lover? Is there music in the air, fluttering butterflies? No. Her stomach makes a rumbling sound the moment she sees her lover...because she hasn't eaten anything all day.'

This situation with the stomach is there to precede and explain her feeling of shame because he can hear that sound. I found love in this roman is very romantic.


Megha Marija wrote: "This situation with the stomach is there to precede and explain her feeling of shame because he can hear that sound."

Yeah, that could be right. I didn't think of it this way.


message 20: by Lily (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lily Li Couldn't agree more! It is a philosophical novel rather than a romantic one.Only by keeping that in mind can we really get through this wonderful book.
Besides there is another theme that inspired a lot.Kitsch is a faith that absolutely identifies with life.Kundera takes politics as example and considers it as kitsch shows.I think not only politics but most of the noble images can be contaminated by kitsch.Maybe it's human nature to be kitsch but the writter remind us of it.


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