05 December 2007


Relationships are not single-dimensional entities. Every relationship is made up of two or more persons, naturally engendering two or more points of view. There is no single truth, or happening; only versions of it.

This idea takes central meaning in most of Czech writer Milan Kundera’s fiction. His post-Czechoslovakia novel, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, completed in Paris (where he had moved with his wife sometime after the Soviet invasion) and published sometime in the mid-1980s, is a classic example of his thinking and his writing style. In most literary circles, at least from Western eyes, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is acknowledged to be Kundera’s most famous work.

The narrative in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is simple, telling the stories of two couples: Tomas and Tereza, Sabina and Franz.

The longer of the two stories is about a divorced womanising Czech neurosurgeon Tomas and Tereza, an ordinary country girl working in a restaurant. Tomas and Tereza marry, and Tereza becomes a talented photojournalist. When the Soviets invade and take over Czechoslovakia, the couple defects to Switzerland. However, on discovering Tomas’ infidelities, Tereza returns to Czechoslovakia. Tomas follows her, giving up a promising career.

In Czechoslovakia, Tomas is forced to leave his job at a hospital when he refuses to retract from an article he had written, which contained anti-Soviet sentiments. So, he takes up a menial job as a window cleaner, while continuing with his womanising. Tereza becomes a housewife, staying home with their dog. Later, to deter Tomas from his infidelities, as well as to escape from the State secret police, the couple moves to the country to live simple happy lives, until their death in a car accident.

The shorter story is a relationship between Sabina, a Czech émigré artist in Switzerland, and Franz, a married Swiss lecturer. Not only do the two persons in this relationship have different backgrounds, they have different minds as well Рand the relationship is fraught with misunderstandings. They eventually part ways: Franz to live with a female student and then die a nonsensical death at a protest march in Thailand; Sabina to live to a ripe old age in the United States.

Although the narrative in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is simple, Kundera continues to explore his favourite theme of different points of view that relationships encompass. He examines relationships from different angles, presenting different perspectives of the persons involved in the relationships. So different can be the perspectives in a relationship, Kundera believes, that he introduces a makeshift vocabulary of misunderstood expressions in the novel.

And, in quintessential Kundera style, he uses a narrator in the story to present another point of view, explaining matters to us rather philosophically. For, Kundera believes, since people experience relationships differently, they interpret relationships in their own respective ways… leaving very little margin for understanding each other. The concept of ‘lightness’ in this context is, perhaps, nothing but meaninglessness.


Madhuri said...

Oh this book has so many dimensions of relationships. As do other Kundera books. My personal favorite is Ignorance, which talks of the perception of past relationship, which is so different from the present.
Why do you call this post Meaninglessness?

runawaysun said...

Wanted to title it 'Different perspectives', but I've used this title in the past. Thought of the meaninglessness of looking at relationships single-dimensionally. Hence...

Besides 'Ignorance', Kundera's 'Identity' and 'Immortality' make good reading.