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Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being': The dilemma of light and heavy

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"But when the strong were too weak to hurt the weak, the weak had to be strong enough to leave."

― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Czech-born French novelist Milan Kundera passed away at 94 on July 11th. The world-famous writer is still common among book lovers, especially in philosophical fiction, satire and poetry. 

In the 1980s, everybody in the West was reading Kundera, indulging in his books like The Joke (1967), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), and the book he is most famous for - The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The author was known for his witty, tragicomic tales, often intersecting with deep philosophical debates and satirical representations of life under communist oppression.

Kundera was a common name to be applauded as a favourite to win the Nobel Prize for literature, but he never claimed the honour. Despite being a name everyone in modern and contemporary literature knew by heart, Kundera spent much of his life in seclusion, rarely engaging with the public.

The story of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is set in the Prague Spring, the Soviet invasion of the country. The novel explores the philosophical themes of 'lightness' and 'weight' through the lives of four individuals. The story begins with discussion of Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence. Kundera posits if, as Nietzsche believed, everything in life happens an infinite number of times, causing the heaviest of burdens; a personal life in which everything happens only once loses its 'weight' and significance - hence 'the unbearable lightness of being'.

However, the narrator also mentions the theory of Parmenides, who believed that 'light' (warmth and finesse) is positive and 'heaviness' is negative. These conflicting views raise questions, which is correct?

The story revolves around Tomas, a serial adulterer and a professional surgeon who embraces lightness. He is free of all 'heaviness', shuns all labels and ideals and justifies physical unfaithfulness (cheating) based on his emotional faithfulness (his love for his wife). Tomas's mistress (one of many), Sabina, is an artist with a liberated spirit who takes lightness to an extreme, betraying others with her complete lack of commitment. 

Tomas's wife, Tereza, is heaviness personified and is strongly committed to her husband. Her love is a binding thing—not bad, just heavy. She also has a great intensity of political ideals, whereas none holds Tomas down. Franz, Sabina's lover till his death, represents a mix of the heavy and the light, creating a complex psychological clash but a simple goal that doesn't flutter. Franz embodies lightness in tearing commitment with one but mentally committing very intensely to another. 

As the four lives collide, the feasibility of lightness is charged, and so are the characters' responsibilities to themselves and to others and how they detangle their fates from the web of complexities. 

 The book slowly answers the question previously asked - whose theory was correct. He portrays how unbearable each choice can only be made once with one possible result and that no one can ever know what other choices would have brought. A unique clarity marks Kundera's writing. The quotes from the books are direct, worldly and intriguing.

"A person who longs to leave the place where he lives is an unhappy person."

― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

As bold as he may be in his writing, his misogynist representation of women characters had put him in a position of question of being accepted by modern readers. His writing contains descriptions of the male gaze and objectification targeting women characters. It either shows males controlling and dominating the women or women being subjected to objectification. 

Kundera's characters and backgrounds were mostly rooted in pragmatic historical movements. This tendency to set his story in the political unrest and major paradigm shifts relates to his involvement in Politics. Kundera had participated in the brief liberalization of Czechoslovakia in 1967–68. 

After the Soviet occupation of the country, he refused to admit his political errors and consequently was attacked by the authorities. This resulted in banning all his works, firing him from his teaching positions, and ousting him from the Communist Party. He had to move to France with his wife, Věra Hrabánková, in 1975. 

The Czech government stripped him of his citizenship in 1979. Kundera was now a Franco-Czech, but in his words, 'elsewhere', that couldn't describe his nationality anymore, only the intensity of his existence found in his books' anxious yet nostalgic references. 

Kundera's work is among the list of the most favourites by readers around the globe. He is one of the most translated writers of modern times as well. His words absorb the readers in such delicious indulgence that makes them question the weight of their existence - the lightness of it and its heaviness.  

"And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not run in circles; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition." - The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Tahseen Nower Prachi is a final-year student of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka.

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