A work of a different and honest sort of genius. With voice fleeting between third-person character born from the page (as we are constantly reminded) and the writer’s autobiographical musings, the reader is enthralled by a multi-faceted view of the world, its people, and its individual situations that inextricably and cyclicly link themselves to the next.
Based on Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, Kundera deploys in each very human story two opposing views on one matter. These, more often than not, arise according to a certain character’s background, that continual block of life that unleashes a chain of inevitable and formidable events over and through which the human is helpless. Indeed, his successes are merely skated over by Kundera, in a slighting tone of triviality. This helplessness is exacerbated and accentuated by the political backdrop of Communist Prague and the Russians’ invasion into the private lives of civilisation.
Central dichotomies are exposed and almost personified by Kundera’s wildly vivid, varying characters. For example: strength vs weakness, light vs darkness, levity vs gravity, duty vs liberty, and physical sex vs emotional love. He explores ideas presenting each side through the voice of two characters, normally in antithesis or opposition, and often ending up trapped in intimacy but Kundera is voyeur to their essential difference which threatens to ultimately and unhappily polarise one from the other.
Characters seem tortured by their fates. Kundera thus introduces Sophocles’ Oedipus as the ultimate tale of the portentous actions of a man who is ignorant of what has been prescribed for him in the Delphic oracle. He murders a man at a crossroads, who turns out to have been his father from whom he had been separated at birth; he has sex with his mother, whom he, equally, does not know to be the woman who bore him. Ultimately, he gouges out his eyes, an apt method of self-destruction for his former metaphorical blindness, now torturously and tragically turned literal. The ancient tragedy of Oedipus, however, does not leave the reader at that. Kundera cleverly weaves the theme of the abandoned child floating down the river to another’s door, to that person destined to raise the child as a wolf lost from its pack.
Duties such as the latter serve to monopolise and menace the central characters’ lives. Such duties bind one principal character, for instance Tomas, to his wife, yet he comes to despise her, what he has become so far from his ‘nature’, and the destiny that has bestowed this desperate child upon him. Teresa’s — the wife, an increasingly vulnerable and tragic character — love and happiness, come to be slowly chiselled away with every infidelity her husband (formerly a surgeon; practiced in cutting and slicing humans, as Kundera mentions) commits.
Kundera struggles with the idea that a character could be anything but an autobiographical depiction, and he talked outside this novel about exploring every dimension a human can be, through stretching one’s own real character to its bounds of possible existence and personality. Tomas and Franz, the two pivotal male characters, overlap lives and mistress and seem more similar than the central females, Teresa and Sabina, and the far more distantly, briefly and apathetically described wife of Franz. Past struggles of the women are examined far more deeply, whilst the present and future of the male characters seems of more relevance to Kundera. Both Teresa and Sabina struggle increasingly with the chasm between their family and themselves, and the former ways in which they had been treated. Whilst Sabina’s emotional attachments and losses run down the father’s and masculine side, Teresa’s abuse by and escape from family centres itself around her mother.
The mother-child bond is one that runs as a constant motif, not least of all in Tomas’ turmoil to differentiate between a woman, and the ‘woman’ lodged inside her. He ultimately comes to discover that what has been the brunt of his deep-seated respect and compassion (another concept studied in depth, including some interesting etymological notes) for his wife of many decades is his vision and idea of his, or even merely the, ‘mother’ inside her. Once he disregards that notion, his need and desire to care for this woman vanishes dramatically with it. He is then a free agent.
Though relationships are portrayed as seemingly quick and blunt to sever, each recurrently crops up as an ominous ache of the past that wields unforeseeable significance in later decisions.
The contemporary political scene resides as an arching shadow over each intimate exploration into a life. The latter then proves itself a microcosm of one of the many issues that arose in a closely surveilled state. Reflections between person and nation, and vice versa, symbolises each as an inextricable product of the other. Indeed, though there is a stint away from Prague for two main characters and coincidentally also a third, the Czech Republic is never left; Kundera constantly mentions fighting, war and uprisings; the characters go to Czech talks, debates and lectures, and the first two return after months, one following the other.
For me, the unravelling of this novel is the necessary plod through a present life, but an emotional liberation, a mental exercise in fluidity and expansion, and an enrichment from worlds and brains past. Kundera believes reduction of a life (i.e. death) can only end in kitsch; the coma of this novel, however, is the harmony of humans, or the futile fight against it.