The first book I chose to read for this course is called The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, one of the Czech Republic’s most renowned authors. (I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, especially on my commute, and found myself almost missing my stop every time because I was so enthralled!)
I had never thought of travel as something negative, as something that could inspire anything but excitement until I had to write an essay about a quote expressed by Madame de Staël for my French class last year. She once wrote that traveling can evoke « de la solitude et de l’isolement sans repos et sans dignité » (solitude and isolation, without rest or dignity). This perception of travel shocked me and was evidently hard to forget. Although I understood what Madame de Staël articulated, it was still quite difficult for me to think beyond my own views of travel, which are nothing but positive; that is, until I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The novel presents four protagonists in third person: Tomas, Tereza, Franz and Sabina, whose stories are interconnected, although they are written in a non-linear fashion and sometimes almost as alternate timelines. While the novel is a literary attempt to address the complexity of humanness, and the challenging balance between unconditional love and inability to remain loyal, below the surface, The Unbearable Lightness of Being reveals a tremendous amount about the condition of Prague under the Soviet Union’s regime. It is almost as if the dichotomy between love and infidelity stands as a metaphor for the way in which many Czechs and Slovaks felt toward their motherland during the totalitarian regime—they disliked the nation Czechoslovakia became, but had difficulty letting go of/staying in their home:
That is why Tomas was surprised when on the tenth day of the occupation she [Tereza] said to him, ‘Why is it you don’t want to go to Switzerland?’
‘Why should I?’
‘They could make it hard for you here.’
‘They can make it hard for anybody,’ replied Tomas with a wave of the hand. ‘What about you? Could you live abroad?’
‘You’ve been out there risking your life for this country [Tereza had photographed the invasion]. How can you be so nonchalant about leaving it?’
‘Now that Dubcek [reform Communist leader who was forced to ‘bow down to the conqueror’] is back, things have changed,’ said Tereza. […]
‘It doesn’t bother you that Sabina [Tomas’ lover] has also emigrated to Switzerland?’ Tomas asked.
‘Geneva isn’t Zurich,’ said Tereza. ‘She’ll be much less of a difficulty there than she was in Prague.’
A person who longs to leave the place where he lives is an unhappy person. That is why Tomas accepted Teresa’s wish to emigrate as the culprit accepts his sentence, and one day, he and Tereza and Karenin [their dog] found themselves in the largest city in Switzerland. (25-26)
In this excerpt, two of the principle characters discuss traveling—emigrating—to Switzerland using both the occupation and lovers as argumentative points. The latter is the more important aspect to Tereza, because as any wife, she does not want to share her husband. However, that the discussion is framed through love/infidelity is indicative of the way in which Kundera, for a majority of the novel, clandestinely comments on the consequences of the Communist invasion.
Thus, the essence of travel in the novel is not of entertainment, exploration, leisure, adventure, discovery, or immersion but rather, as escape, refuge, exile, deportation, etc. Kundera writes, “people usually escape from their troubles into the future; they draw an imaginary line across the path of time, a line beyond which their current troubles will cease to exist” (161). Nevertheless, because the existence of a future was uncertain under the Communist system, travel through time was unfeasible, and hence, physical travel was the only option. The experience of travel in the novel and in Czechoslovakia from 1948-1989 was not immigration to Prague (as is the case with students in a study abroad program) but rather, emigration from Prague. This indeed does change the dynamic in which one thinks about the experience of travel, and it divulges the image in which travel existed in Czechoslovakia for half a century. To be sure, when I thought about Prague before the semester began, I thought of it as a developing touristic site, as quite literally, a physical mass of bodies going to Prague. Because I was unfamiliar with Prague’s history prior to my orientation classes, I had never imagined quite literally, a physical mass of bodies exiting Prague due to the repressive regime.
Tereza eventually returns to Prague because she cannot handle Tomas’ infidelity (rightly so!). Tomas then leaves Zurich and returns to Prague “thinking of his love for Tereza.” However, “no sooner had he crossed the border […] than he began to doubt whether it actually did have to be” (189). The reason behind Tomas’ return to Prague (love for whom/what?) thus remains a mystery but his travel certainly is affected by the Communist Party. In one passage, after their respective returns to Prague, Tomas and Tereza travel away from Prague to a small town two hours away. Once there, they realize that the names of everything have changed: the Grand Hotel to the Baikal, the square to Moscow Square; streets were changed to Stalingrad Street and Leningrad Street; there was a Tolstoy Sanatorium such that “a Czech spa had suddenly metamorphosed into a miniature imaginary Russia” (162).
This passage reminded me of Vaclav Havel’s (Czech playwright and dissident, and the Czech Republic’s first president) “Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak,” in which he writes that the disorder of the real history of Czechoslovakia was replaced by the orderliness of pseudo-history. In a metaphysical way, The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the travel between alternate timelines, not only between the multiple lovers but also between different facets of reality. The hesitation to be in Prague is partially due to the uncertainty the system conjures.
I have read about multiple Czechs returning to the Czech Republic after being in exile for several years. I wonder if most people returned. I wonder if the experience of travel has changed. I would like to think it definitely has, and I would like to think I have, however minimally, participated in changing its dynamic. I came to Prague precisely so I can learn this history and culture, and I hope my peers had similar intentions.