Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being": Book Review

I could not recall if I had read this years ago when or before the film. Given my son's interest in both novel and adaptation, I found my wife's own copy and dove in. I realized I had not read it, but recognized early on the significance of Sabina's bowler hat, the 1988 film's icon; the pleasure of the 1984 book as in the successful cinematic version lies in how such symbols and tropes revolve and swirl over time. An intrusive narrator adds far more insights than could a film, however, gleaned from a cultural heritage, as well as such predecessors in the art of storytelling as Stendhal, Sophocles, and Tolstoy.

It's therefore a novel of ideas as well as a love triangle (at least, around Tomas; adding Franz to Tereza and F's wife Marie-Claude we extend the dimensions, let alone Tomas' unnamed hundreds of lovers). One could quote hundreds of passages. Aphoristic, the prose lingers. If you want to see infinity, the teller tells us, close your eyes. Distance between one's life and one's feelings dominates its characters as they struggle to make sense out of the Czech occupation by the Soviets after the failed 1968 demonstrations. The uprising occupies less space than one may anticipate: the aftermath, as Tomas finds in a gripping sequence, brings down many intellectuals, as doctors turn window washers. Still, that affords him more time for seduction.

Unsettled by her inability to conform, Tereza also bristles. In Paris a year or two (note the ambiguity as she reflects on it) after the occupation, she resents the supposition of her French friends that she'd join the local protests against the Soviets. "She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison. But she knew she would never make them understand." (100)

Sabina aspires to live in truth, but wonders how: "lying neither to ourselves nor to others" she considers "was possible only away from the public; the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntary make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies." (112-3) Sabina hates novels that give away the secrets of intimacy; Kundera deepens suspense and builds momentum by state pressure to expose loyalties.

Tereza--in what may seem hyperbole to us as with the French, but to those within a police state riddled with informers, compounded by casual conversations leading to coercion and compromise in the name of Communist conformity, may not seem a literary conceit--cringes. A tableau on Prague's Petrin Hill haunts her. Her mother resembles a wailing jailer. "Almost from childhood, she knew that a concentration camp was nothing exceptional or startling but something very basic, a given into which we are born and from which we can escape only through the greatest of efforts." (137)

All three major characters attempt this liberation. Tereza interrogates herself with the types of questions about her self within her body or without it that a child might raise. "Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence." (137) Michael Henry Heim's translation shows the clarity of this expression, even as Kundera's non-chronology evades neat order.

Yet the Middle European setting reveals some control over one's mindset no matter who's in charge. The "premeditated quality" of European beauty grounds its inhabitants within "an aesthetic intention and a long-range plan." (101) By contrast, New York City represents a later stage of "beauty by mistake," not intended but a lesser expression before beauty itself perishes from this earth. 

In this grayer time, cemeteries provide peace for Sabina. A reclamation by the urban of a vanished rural presence hovers. In the secular, a deeper longing persists. Kundera evokes an older sense of interior awe within primitive people early on: one must have once marveled at the unseen, before Tomas and his colleagues invaded the body's interior. Heartbeats invisible, a soul lurked within the cage of one's own ribs, and duality turned into identity. Now, "the face is nothing but an instrument panel registering all the bodily mechanisms: digestion, sight, hearing, respiration, thought." (40)

Speaking of the differences between outer and inner, the tensions during part six, "The Great March," address the trouble when the "brotherhood of man" beloved by liberals worldwide forces conformity. Stalin's son, Parmenides' division between heaviness and lightness, Nietzsche's Turin Horse. baby Moses in the bulrushes, Descartes, Plato's Symposium, Adam's naming of the animals: allusions multiply. Kundera seeks to align his novel, with its sprawling approach (we learn in an aside, fifty pages from its end, the fate of two of the protagonists, and the time continues to leap ahead of the events we thought it would remain discussing), to the Western intellectual tradition. This can get messy, as the narrator himself would agree.

Still, the sixth section as it follows Franz into a mercy mission (with media coverage and celebrities) to let medical aid enter Communist Cambodia rouses Kundera to integrate a discussion of kitsch. This pings off of one on excrement, but his point is that glossing over the human with all its flaws leads to emotional falsity. "In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme." (252)

It's a "folding screen set up to curtain off death," and the "true function" of kitsch forces upon the viewer a tyranny of giving in to unearned feelings, tired re-creations of easy sentiment. Kundera compares Sabina's explanation of her paintings earlier to Tereza: "on the surface, an intelligible lie, underneath, the unintelligible truth showing through."

In some situations, people may be "condemned to playact. Their struggle with mute power (the mute power across the river, a police transmogrified into mute microphones in the wall) is the struggle of a theater company that has attacked an army." Franz like Tereza distances himself from the posturing, yet like Tomas, he is haunted if he does not do something against the forces of oppression. (268)

Political kitsch, for Kundera's characters, threatens, whether labelled from the left or on the right. "Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion." (278) Yet, somehow Kundera's seventh section, "Karenin's Smile" in a powerful sequence conveying the decline of Tomas and Tereza's beloved dog, evokes not kitsch but earned emotion. I doubt if anyone who has loved a pet can read this easily.

While the conclusion (which without spoilers shows how the film adaptation differed) did not fully sustain the impact I had expected, the conjuration of the ideal attempted of the pastoral idyll within the Czech lands' occupation sharpens the contrasts Kundera favors between cities the country dwellers cannot wait to move to and the predicament of the intellectuals in internal exile who depart Prague for such places as their last defense against the kitsch and the compromises of its regimes.

Image:  Daisies (Sedmikrasky). Directed by Věra Chytilová. This fits the time and mood perfectly. (7-9-13 to Amazon US)

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