Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim.
First published in Czech 1984
First published in English translation 1985
A good story is the one that resist paraphrase. This is one such story. In its barest form it’s a simple story of intense love, sexual infidelity, and political intrigue, but it has such a vast scope that the more one says about it the less it seems. The Prague Spring of 1968 and consequent Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia form the background.
It takes us through the lives of two couples who are trying to find meaning in their lives, who want to cast off the burdens of life to find ‘lightness’. Tomas loves Tereza but can’t stop seeing his mistress, whereas Tereza knows about Tomas’s infidelity yet cannot leave him. Their struggle to find peace with themselves embark them upon a path in which things happen only one; there is no recourse to a second chance. Whatever they do, in the end, they find themselves trapped in the conundrums of life, having to make do with the garish and ugly stuff that life is made of, giving up, finally, all attempts to ‘fix’ themselves. Thus, the book takes a pessimistic view of humanity.
Concerning its style and form, it’s complete opposite to what Flaubert recommended of a writer, that is, the novelist does not exist; what exists is the story. At no point should the novelist poke his nose in to offer his own insights. Kundera argues with this idea when he becomes an ‘intrusive writer’, commenting freely on political climate of the country and drawing upon philosophical propositions through which the story is advanced. For instance, the he starts the novel with a short chapter of Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Return. Philosophical density may seem overbearing but I think this direct authorial commentary blends smoothly within the narrative and at no point becomes jarring to read.
My rating 4/5.