22 October 2012

Monday Book Review

Featuring: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.  This book is quite famous and the cover art is easily recognizable.  I was recommended this book by a friend a few years back, but I read it simply because I really loved The Joke, by the same author.  For the first time ever, I actually have mixed feelings on this book!  I wanted to love all of Kundera's work, particularly his most famous, but I ran into some trouble.  Simply put, I couldn't separate his work to stand alone.  I read this book with a constant mental reference to The Joke.  There are really similar themes running in both, but the comparison left one in better standing than the other.  I would have to recommend The Joke if someone wanted to read a Kundera novel.

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I read and loved The Joke, which I should write a review of sometime.  A friend of mine accused Kundera of being an overapplauded gas bag (or something like that) and I can see why a reader would come away with that impression in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  There's often pontification about ontology that reads as populist philosophy and sounds a hell of a lot smarter and woven together than it actually is.  It is a grandiose gesture that never quite hits the mark.  He pulls the characters together in this thread, but the direct manner in which Kundera does this seems contrived.  He did a much better job in The Joke by simply teasing out threads through the characters' self-actualization and showing, not telling.  My creative writing teacher would drill the class: show, don't tell.  I felt like therre was an awful lot of telling and not a whole lot of showing when it came to the "unbearable lightness of being" and the philosophy he tried to rally around this idea.  It came out half-baked because it didn't really make sense with what he was primarily accomplishing.   The philosophy was a roughshod attempt to give the story deeper meaning, when it really just seemed like tacky decoration to a touching, realistic story.  There was a lot to learn from the characters without announcing the motif you run through their story.  The novel seemed either immature or premature, and I'm not sure which describes the experience better.

However, I cannot despise the book entirely or Kundera for that matter because he writes prose that cuts right to the quick for me.  He has flashes of such clarity in his prose that all I can see is myself in those words.  Two of my personal favorites from this book:
"After a while he felt her breath return to normal and her face rise unconsciously to meet his.  He smelled the delicate aroma of her fever and breathed it in, as if trying to glut himself with the intimacy of her body." (7)
"And so the man who called to her was simultaneously a stranger and a member of the secret brotherhood.  He called to her in a kind voice, and Tereza felt her soul rushing up to the surface through her blood vessels and pores to show itself to him." (48)
There's also the nature of the relationships Kundera describes.  His love stories teeter on the limited omniscient point of view because he explores each individual separately to understand the synergy of their relationship.  The Franz-Sabina-Tereza-Tomas love triangles do read as authentic in all their complexity.  What Kundera is really talented at doing is understanding the mechanisms of love and their dependence on context.  In both books, he extrapolates the importance of the context of the romance as much as the conflicting inner workings.  The story follows primarily Tereza and Tomas, but with clear substories going to Sabina and Franz.  The reader slowly understands the entangled psyche of each character as they age and reflect on themselves, which is how it works in reality.  The characters are slowly self-realizing with the reader in a novel way.  It's not contrived and adds a touching, human element to the story arc.

The story starts shortly before the Prague spring of 1968, in where else but Prague.  Much like The Joke, the communist life drives the story as much as the characters themselves.  The characters are not in a vacuum that doesn't take into account the changing social structure, the political landscape, and how choices affected the direction of one's life and, consequently, one's romance.  Tereza's work as a photographer during the Prague spring leads Tomas to leave for Switzerland with her; however, when in Switzerland, Tereza finds herself so unhappy that she leaves for Prague as the borders closed.  Tomas, torn between his love of medicine and Tereza, follows her knowing it would inhibit his practice of medicine.  As the story continues, it becomes apparent that politically, Tomas is vulnerable and this leads him to a moment of truth where he decides that he cannot choose to go along with the proscribed path.  He tries to cut his way through the jungle of the double-faced lies and promises and eventually shuts himself and Tereza in the countryside with their dog Karenin.

The romance between Tereza and Tomas changes shape as the Communist system affected their lives.  Their struggle against the communist regime defines the relationship almost as much their love for each other.  In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the relationship development in Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, but set in a tightly controlled socio-economic political system.  There are passages that draw tight parallels to magical realism (particularly Tereza's dream sequences, which were cleverly woven and developed thoughout the book), but it retains a strict adherence to the reality of communism in Czechoslovakia.  It's a fictionalized account of the truth and that comes across.  If you read this blog, you probably understand the political realities of ordinary communist citizens and the role of the secret police in maintaining a certain status quo.  This is an overwhelming theme and Kundera appropriates it to his characters with great deftness.  It's true to the reality and that authenticity engrosses the reader, but makes his ontological gas-baggery more difficult to read.  Pardon my French, but it frankly looks like shit in comparison to the beautiful story of lovers.  Is that the point?  Did he purposely juxtapose the shit with the lightness, a motif he pulls out in the last 30 pages?  I remain unconvinced it was purposefully awful.  In short, I think the love stories are really touching and beguiling, but I could have done without the narrator pontifications.  I would, quite frankly, redirect readers to The Joke to avoid the philosophical musings and be swept away by Kundera's artistry.

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