The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The-Unbearable-Lightness-of-BeingPrior to reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being I was never quite sure what the book was about. It seemed to be one of those books that is hard to summarize. I would describe it as a book on relationships and sexual escapades with the backdrop of Czech politics. Main characters are Tomas the womanizer doctor, Tereza the naive country girl, and Sabina the free-thinker artist. The three of them make some kind of a love triangle with a twist. Who Tomas loves is really Tereza, but he also sleeps with Sabina even though he knows it tortures Teresa (hence tortures him too in a way). Sabina knows about Tomas and Tereza but doesn’t mind.

But really I just barely scratched the surface of what is in the book. There are many philosophical musings about love, life, relationship, politics, and the world. My did I enjoy them. The book is so so rich with ideas that I was in awe through and through!

The writing wasn’t exactly fantastic. The excessive parentheses especially annoyed me. Makes you wonder if they really came from Kundera himself in the original language. The book is translated from Czech by Michael Henry Heim, who is an award-winning translator. So I guess it was already in the best hand as far as translation goes. It also drove me a bit crazy when it talked about kitsch for several chapters. A few checks into dictionary and wikipedia didn’t get me very far. I’m still not sure if I understood.

milan kunderaBut again, the ideas! How original! How thoughtful! How mind-bending! Anybody who could make politics seem so sexy must have exceptional talent! I chose to see the real strength of the book rather than the weakness–which now seems to be even less important. Boy oh boy how happy I was to finally try Kundera, who solidly earned his place on my favorite authors list. He must watch out because I’m going to go through his back catalogue!

I’d highly recommend the book for people who question lots of things in life, for those who experienced turmoil in their own country and might be forced to leave, or just those who enjoy discussions of out-of-the-box ideas. I enjoyed The Unbearable Lightness of Being immensely that I couldn’t give it anything other than

5 stars
1984, 304 pp

First line
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!

Memorable Quotes

“Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us. We read its message much as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the bottom of a cup.” ~ p46

“She had come to him to escape her mother’s world, a world where all bodies were equal. She had come to him to make her body unique, irreplaceable. But he too, had drawn an equal sign between her and the rest of them: he kissed them all alike, stroked them alike, made no absolutely no distinction between Tereza’s body and the other bodies.” ~ p54

“Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood.” ~ p71

“What we have not chosen we cannot consider either our merit or our failure.” ~ p85

“The  goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.” ~ p119

“The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. … The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.” ~ p215

“Attaching love to sex is one of the most bizarre ideas the Creator ever had.” ~ p231

Read the Book See the Movie, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Reading the World

Also reviewed by
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The Movie (1988)

The-Unbearable-Lightness-of-Being-movieThe movie is played by Daniel Day-Lewis (of the Butcher in Gangs of New York) as Tomas and Juliette Binoche (who I knew from Catherine Earnshaw of the 1992 Wuthering Heights) as Tereza.

I thought Tereza was well-played, showing grace, youth, and innocence. But my gosh did I have problem with Tomas character in the film. I guess the main problem was, I did not find Day-Lewis sexy, so the whole Casanova thing he was meaning to pull did not work. The continuous smug smile on his face annoyed me as hell.

But you can kind of tell from the structure of the book, that a movie adaptation was not going to work well. The major (and the most crucial) portion of the book lies in the narrator and his philosophical musings, not the plot. Cinematic is great for showing plot and characters, but not deep inner thoughts.

With a bag of skepticism before going in though, I thought the film was somewhat decent for its ambition (it’s nominated for 1989 Oscar for Best Cinematography and Best Writing for Screenplay Based on Material from another Medium). It’s watchable, even if only for setting and lifestyle of the time and place. But it’s skipable for the non-fan of the book.

Rating: 7/10

Short Saturday: Brodkey, Munro, and Kundera

In Short Saturday I will journal my journey to find 5-star quality short stories, whose virtual trophy right now is only held by Truman Capote for A Christmas Memory. Unlike my book reviews, I will talk more about my thoughts and what I learn, why I choose the story and how I come upon it. Unlike books, I’m willing to take more risk for shorts, because they are.. well.. short, so I won’t waste too much time if I don’t like them. Expect to see a lot of trash and hopefully, some gems. As it is now, I am not a fan of short stories. Dare I say, yet? But hey, like people say, it’s all about the journey, not destination.

My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead The great thing about shorts is that I can taste a bunch of writers in bite size portion and see if I’d like to read more of them. A couple of months ago I browsed the library to find this great sounding anthology edited by Jeffrey Eugenides (my favorite author!) titled My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekov to Munro. There are many big names inside, a lot that I’m interested to read.

There’s introduction by Eugenides at the beginning, which after you read, you’d quickly realize that this won’t be a collection of sappy love stories. It’s more of a twisted-complicated one, which is exactly my cup of tea!

“Please keep in mind: my subject here isn’t love. My subject is the love story.

When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims–these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.

We value love not because it’s stronger than death but because it’s weaker. Say what you want about love: death will finish it. You will not go on loving in the grave, not in any physical way that will at all resemble love as we know it on earth. The perishable nature of love is what gives love its profound importance in our lives. If it were endless, if it were on tap, love wouldn’t hit us the way it does.

~ Jeffrey Eugenides, Introduction

As I mentioned earlier, I vowed not to bog down myself with obsessive-compulsiveness to read everything in a collection of short stories and let the randomness takes me. The first story that I chose was one that Eugenides mentioned in his introduction, about a Harvard’s senior attempt to bring his girlfriend to her first orgasm by means of act of cunnilingus. Really, the plot line sounded ridiculous, so I caved. Also, the writer, Harold Brodkey, is the only author in the book that has two short stories. Everyone else only gets one space!

Innocence by Harold Brodkey

Unfortunately, Innocence contains the longest non-sexy sex scene I have ever read (and probably ever will). Like I said, the plot sounded ridiculous. Almost the entire story is set in bed, with the guy performs the act, thinking about other stuff during. It was sooo tiring and looong. I think I was just as frustrated as him seeing that the girlfriend doesn’t JUST come! After pages and pages of futile effort, I started to skim read. I just wanted it to end. My head was going to explode. Just come you b*tch!, I was screaming in my head.

Finally she does, they both cry, and the story ends.

Not the greatest start-up I’m telling you.

Thinking that I shouldn’t take too big of a risk for the next short, I chose the one by Alice Munro. I heard so much about her and I just learned that she ONLY writes short stories. Amazing how you can be so famous only writing short stories. She must be really good.

The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro

Eva mentioned in her review that it’s like Munro’s version of The Notebook. Exactly what I thought! At first. Further on, not so much. The story is about an old married couple. Fiona starts to show symptoms of Alzheimer disease, so she’s moved to a facility home, away from Grant, her husband. As time passes, Fiona starts to forget about Grant. She makes friends with another guy in the nursing home, who she gets more attached to than her own husband, which annoys Grant. We get to learn from Grant’s reminiscence of their past that he has not always been faithful, though not because they were unhappy (So why? I have no idea).

I have to admit, story about very old people doesn’t entice me most of the time. This one has enough depth and was quite skilfully written that it kept my attention the whole way through. I couldn’t much guess where it was going too, which was a plus. Odd thing is, I could never figure out the meaning of the title. There’s NO bear.

The story first appeared in The New Yorker (link to full story) on 27 December 1999. Made into a movie titled Away From Her (2006), nominated for 2 Oscars (Best Actress and Best Screenplay). Would love to see that one.

The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera

I have wanted to read Kundera’s books for the longest time. Alas, I have not. Good thing his short story is featured in the anthology, and it was good according to claire and Eva. The story is originally included in Kundera’s collection Laughable Loves.

The Hitchhiking Game looks at a young couple who’s going on a road trip. When they stop for gas, the girlfriend wanders ahead. When the guy picks her up, they pretend that the girl is a hitchhiker and they don’t know each other. The girl becomes more brazen, unlike her usual shy self, because that’s what she imagines a hitchhiker to be. The guy starts to treat her with less respect, because he sees her like other wild-natured women whom he doesn’t like. They get more and more mixed up in the game until it gets difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not.

Excellent premise and Kundera delivered! I’m happy to find that his writing is not hard to read, so I look forward to reading his books!

And the journey continues…

(I actually read the three stories in 2009, so you’ll find them on Books and Shorts Read in 2009)

Let me know if you’ve posted any thoughts on the stories, because I couldn’t find any apart from the ones linked above!

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