Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, unlike the first book I read this semester, depicts Prague from the perspective of a number of citizens living in the city, though some of them are not originally from there. Although the characters move between different locations throughout the book, they spend the majority of their lives in Prague, and their experiences are inextricably tied to the place. Although they struggle with their existence and position in Prague, the characters always find themselves drawn back to this city where their dreams and their love came into fruition. That is, until the end of the narrative, when most of characters leave behind their complex history and search for a simpler life elsewhere.
What stood out to me the most about Kundera’s Prague were two things: the political backdrop of the Soviet invasion and the fundamental inability of the characters to understand where the others come from, whether it is their family, their culture, their philosophy, or each other’s fears and desires. For me, these two aspects were what drove the book along, and what made the characters so compelling and interesting to read about.
In many ways, the physical setting of The Unbearable Lightness of Being becomes more of a character than just a place. It becomes just as difficult to define as the characters themselves. Just as the characters struggle to understand each other, they also struggle to describe the city where they reside and their relationship with it. Savina, who had emigrated into the country and eventually leaves it behind, makes an attempt at finding what ties the Czech people together, but neither the music, the great men, or their attitude towards Communism can characterize them in an absolute way. In the end has no choice but to come to the conclusion that “if each of [the Czechs] were asked to say what the name of his native country evoked in him, the images that came to mind would be so different as to rule out all possibility of unity.”
This touches on something central to every country and every being, but perhaps is a description most especially appropriate for Central Europe, a region which has always been an intersection of the different sections of Europe. It is a region that has been a part of both the West and the East, who was caught in between German Nazis and Russian Communism during in the recent past, dislocated from their homes and ideology, lost in the current of time and revolution. And yet at every return and liberation they find that their homes are no longer the same, dreams and idols and history ripped out of their hands and recreated to fit someone else’s narrative.
On page 62 of the book, Tomas recalls how the Czech spies used to broadcast their secret tapes on the radio in order to expose their private conversations and highlight their flaws as a form of entertainment. Even though these conversations usually only consist of things that can occur often in casual everyday conversation, they become scandalous when they are spotlighted and coming out of the mouths of people once idolized and respected figures. “Every country has its secret police,” Tomas says. “But a secret police that broadcasts the tapes over the radio—there’s something that could happen only in Prague, something absolutely without precedent.”
This anecdote, as well as many other events in the book, highlights the absurdity of the era they were living in, where the secret police were not secret, real crimes were normalized while exaggerated while everyday conversation becomes sensationalized and reprehensible, and the people had no privacy and could have no real alliance. This absurdity is not only a central aspect of the people and the country around them, but also an essential part of the characters and their relationships as well. Kundera’s Prague exposes the senselessness of the world and the chasm of human understanding that cannot be breached. It is a Prague simultaneously caught in the grand scheme of history and viewed through the intimate and personal eyes of the four main characters. And I can’t help but think that not much has changed—the paradox of such an existence is a conundrum that the world still struggles with today.