“The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful ... Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.”
Tomas is a respected surgeon and intellectual, defying monogamy he is having affairs with countless women whilst his faithful wife Tereza needs to hold his hand to sleep at night. After striking up an affair with the artist Sabina, herself having an affair with Franz, Tomas finds himself simultaneously in love with two women and wondering just how that is possible. Examining life, love, and politics The Unbearable Lightness of Being uncovers these four overlapping lives as they struggle with life in Soviet Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 70s: the secret police knowing your most intimate details is a given.
For me, this was one of those books which everybody tells you to read immediately and yet for some reason it’s taken me until now to actually read it. I didn’t really know what to expect: the title doesn’t really give away much of the plot. It is a wonderful prose which jumps around between characters, narrators, time periods, and view-points.
As much as I enjoyed reading the book I did find that I enjoyed it best when I read it at a much slower pace than I am used to (did anyone else find this?). I think that this is a novel which you have to be in the mood for. It isn’t a particularly light topic, despite what the title suggests, but don’t let that put you off. It is split up into a series of short and sharp chapters: short enough to keep you engaged and deep enough to make you question something you took for granted – and that, in my opinion, is bloody good writing.
Just when you think this is a novel about thinking, about deep philosophical notions, there will be a jolt back to reality as the characters encounter the problems of being an independent thinker in Communist Czechoslovakia. As Tomas wrestles between the sheets of each of his lovers he pens a letter to a new literary magazine; it is published in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section, heavily edited and hidden away. Yet the repercussions this letter has on Tomas’ life is staggering: the dilemmas he is faced with, years after having written the letter, asked to disown it several times, his life is shaped by something which so many of us take for granted.
In essence: you should read this book, but don’t force yourself to enjoy it if you don’t, leave it, go off and read something else and come back to it years later even and try and try again. Eventually you will read it at the right time and it will be absolutely magical; any other time and it will be disastrous.
That said: if you do read it – let me know how you get on!