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Book Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera


With a title that’s striking enough to gain the curiosity of its meaning, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) is a novel that not only serves to tell a story but delivers a profound philosophical view throughout. Kundera dares to delve deep into lifestyles that are surrounded by betrayal, war, polygamy, grief, heartbreak and a desperation to seek out what most humans do – happiness. Such lifestyles are led by the characters Tereza, Tomas, Sabina and Franz who find themselves interlinked with each other in various different ways.

The novel begins in 1960s Prague but ends up stretching out much further to other places in Europe and America up to the 1980s. Tereza and Tomas take up most of the story’s spotlight as the destructive polyamory couple. Tomas, a man who’s bound more to his liberty than to his women, maintains intimate but rather meaningless relationships that test the sanity of Tereza’s loyalty. Sabina fulfils her role as a mistress to both Tomas and Franz, two men who never meet yet are both plagued by the same discontent towards their partners and the will to betray them. All characters appear to walk a path that resembles a place like limbo.

To explore these character’s most private and darkest thoughts the reader is guided by a peripheral narrator, meaning that not only is the story told in third person but by a character who ceases to come forward. The narrator is perhaps of most importance to the novel, as they turn not only to the characters but to us to raise unique questions and introduce us to unique ideas.

What is the unbearable lightness of being? Is betrayal just a radical act of freedom? What does it mean to live in truth? Is it better to be alone? What is “vertigo”?

The idea that humans should be able to live their lives more than once; to use the first one as a sketch to see what they should and shouldn’t do in the next. The opposition of lightness versus darkness in that darkness is not the absence of light, but a heaviness pulling us closer to earth and keeping us in touch with ourselves and our lives. Lightness is where one is unattached to the world and feels nothing. To be nothing.

This is a novel that catches the conscience of even the most innocent readers. It forces us to re-establish our own morals and to identify if we possess them. It scares us into asking ourselves if we are living the lives we actually want. It makes us feel guilty about our own mistakes whilst at the same time makes us feel less by knowing someone else’s. This novel voices the truth that it is difficult to hear but yearns to be heard.

No one is perfect, as Kundera writes, “There is no perfection only life”, and he continues to convey the view that sometimes doing the wrong thing is actually a raw, true path towards doing what’s right.

Read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and it will tell you who you want, should, could or need to be.

Written by Courtney Ann

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