Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Unbearable Lightness of Being By Milan Kundera

genre: philosophical fiction

Dear Mr. Kundera,

I read your book.  It got rave reviews from everyone and so I thought I would give it a try - I'm trying to learn about your homeland because it's where my ancestors are from.  People tell me that yours is one of the quintessential Czech novels.   And while yes, it did take place in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) for the most part, I'm just not feeling the quintessentialness of it.   Your book has four main characters who are, both individually and collectively, a mess.  Self-centered and with few redeeming qualities, it was hard for me to ever super care about what happened to them.  Tomas, especially, with his inexhaustible need for women, never really made me feel deeply (except for that scene with the DOG - THAT'S the only scene in this entire book that made me feel something REAL!).    Okay, that dog scene was good.  But seriously!  All the philosophical discussion, while in short snatches made me THINK, often it just dragged and clogged up what slow-moving plot we had going on and I felt like you were trying really really hard to appear deep and philosophical instead of just BEING it.  Sometimes entire concepts were actually beyond me which was uncomfortable and while I just plowed through it, it didn't make me eager to pick up the book.

I DID like when you stepped out of the omniscient narrator role and became a watching and engaged character for little snippets.  That was interesting.

Sometimes things got very irreverent and coarse and I felt like you were trying to shock me, which sits uneasily but perhaps that was your point?

To sum up, it was really slow reading because it was, truthfully, somewhat boring but there are two things that make this book deserve three stars despite the many many graphic sexual scenes I had to skim through which got annoying.  Okay. Two things.

#1.  I did get a sense of the timeline of more modern Czech history through the eyes of your characters. Not a sense of the PLACE so much, I don't feel like I really KNOW Prague or the Czech Republic that more much than I did before, but I do feel like I better understand what happened there.  The fear and the frustration.

#2. Some of your book is just so beautifully written.  It's been a long time since I wanted to read with a pen in hand, but I did for your book, so that really is something.  I recognize that I am reading your work in a translation but even the ideas themselves were sometimes brilliant - I especially like the one about decisions - about how we can never really know which of our decisions are good and which are bad because we never get to find out the alternative - without second, third, fourth lives to live in which we try out the other things we MIGHT have done, we can't really make judgements about our choices.  That's an intriguing idea.  Of course, I think there are MORAL ways to answer the question of good/bad decisions - but especially when it comes to world events and government actions, it really does make you think.

Also, I appreciated all the sections where you lay out how two people can see the same thing so very differently.  My favorite part was in the section Living in Truth.  You said, "What does it mean to live in truth?  Putting it negatively is easy enough: it means not lying, not hiding, and not dissimulating...For Sabina, living in truth, lying neither to ourselves not to others, was possible only away from the public: the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful...For Franz, living in truth meant breaking down the barriers between the private and the public.  He was fond of quoting Andre Breton on the desirability of living 'in a glass house' into which everyone can look and there are no secrets."  WOAH. That is deep and really made me think.  Both ideas resonate.

In closing, I will tell you that even though I wanted to be done way before I hit the last page, I DID finish it. Did your ending leave me feeling refreshed or satisfied?  I can't say it did.


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