The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera (NY: Harper and Row, 1987).
I had heard so many reader rhapsodies about this novel from my friends. In the bookstore, in a reversal of form, so many customers pressed the book into my hands and recommended it so highly that I brought it home to reside in my bedside town of book piles. It was a long-term tenant, however, just not piquing my interest each time I reached for a new book to read. When I decided to try the Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge, in which nine books about nine countries by international authors are chosen, I blew the dust off this novel and decided I would travel to Czechoslovakia before and after the 1968 Prague Uprising for the second leg of my around the world trip.
After having read it, I am of two minds about the book. I think it is an interesting and thoughtful book, one with many provocative images and unusual relationships and ideas. For someone who enjoys novels of ideas or who enjoys reading philosophy or poetry, I can understand how one could have such passionate views about it. I am not such a reader, preferring characters with lots of depth or unusual descriptions of time and place.
The book follows two couples throughout the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, and the immersion into that historical era was interesting to me, so I kept slogging on, despite my lack of interest in the four main characters and their endless loop of: A) self-doubt and unhappiness driven by philandering lovers or B) sexual/psychological domination while wearing unusual haberdashery.
Kundera is certainly a vivid writer. I was struck in particular by two images he portrayed: a description of the human body as a machine with a nozzle for oxygen intake and the face as instrument panel for the clockwork brain; and a sad chapter about a dying crow, buried up to its neck in rubble by street urchins and rescued by Teresa, the most tormented main characters.
I wouldn’t state that I enjoyed reading this book, but I am glad that I learned more about that era in Czech history and I can at least converse intelligently with my buddies about this book. I do, however, look forward to my next armchair journey on this reading challenge, to a sunnier Egyptian climate, with Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz in The Harafish. Onward!