20 years on, John Banville returns to the Czech Republic's most famous fictional export, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
by John Banville The Guardian, Saturday 1 May 2004
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, translated by Michael Henry Heim 314 pp, Faber.
Returning after 20 years to what is acknowledged as a modern classic, I was struck by how little I remembered. As I began re-reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera's novel of love and politics in communist-run Czechoslovakia between 1968 and the early 1980s, I realised that, true to its title, the book had floated out of my mind like a hot-air balloon come adrift from its tethers. I managed to retrieve a few fragments - the naked woman in the bowler hat whom we all remember, the death of a pet dog, a lavatory seat compared to a white water lily rising out of the bathroom floor, and the fact that Nietzsche's name appears in the first line on the first page - but of the characters I retained nothing at all, not even their names.
Why had so little remained for me? Is it the result of failing memory, or is there indeed an essential weightlessness to the book? The Unbearable Lightness of Being had a remarkable success when it was published in English in 1984 (this autumn will see an anniversary edition from Faber). Here was an avowedly "postmodern" novel in which the author withheld so many of the things we expect from a work of fiction, such as rounded characters - "It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived" - a tangible milieu, a well-paced plot, and in which there are extended passages of straightforward philosophical and political speculation, yet it became a worldwide bestseller, loved by the critics and the public alike.
As in the case of all immediate and great artistic successes, Kundera's book must have spoken directly to the contemporary ear. By 1984 Orwell's dystopian vision of a world ruled by totalitarian ideologies was seen to have been frighteningly prescient, particularly from the perspective of the eastern bloc countries. The cold war was at one of the hottest stages it had ever reached, with Reagan in the White House and Andropov in the Kremlin.Yet even in those bleak years, those with hearing sufficiently sharp could detect the first faint creakings of the ice-cap as it began to shift. Kundera was one of the keenest listeners to the break-up of the international order.
When The Unbearable Lightness was published, its author had been living for many years in France, and the book evinces more the influence of Rousseau and Stendhal than of Kafka or the Capeks. Kundera is a man of the Enlightenment, and is not loath to champion reason over emotion, pointing out, as he has frequently done in his essays as well as his fiction, that many of the worst disasters mankind has suffered were spawned by those who attended most passionately to the dictates of the heart.
Kundera has a deep fascination with and horror of kitsch, a concept he returns to again and again throughout his work. In The Unbearable Lightness he writes of one of the characters, the Czech painter Sabina who lives now in America, being taken for a drive by a US senator who stops to allow his young children to play on the grass in the sunshine. For him, the senator declares, the sight of the gambolling youngsters is the very definition of happiness, at which there flashes through Sabina's mind an image of the senator on a reviewing stand in Prague smiling benignly down on the May Day parade.
"How did the senator know that children meant happiness? Could he see into their souls? What if the moment they were out of sight, three of them jumped the fourth and began beating him up?
"The senator had only one argument in his favour: his feeling. When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme."
These speculations lead Kundera to an essential formulation: "The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a basis of kitsch."
Sabina is one of the quartet of main characters who perform the intricate set of variations that make up what there is of action in the book. The others are Tomas, a skilled surgeon who falls foul of the Czech regime and ends up as a window-washer; his wife Tereza, a barmaid who takes rolls of photographs of events in the streets of Prague during the 1968 Russian invasion, only to realise later that she has unwittingly served the secret police by supplying them with photographic identification of dissidents; and the lecturer Franz, who takes part in a radical-chic protest against the Khmer Rouge and dies at the hands of Bangkok muggers.
The hero of the book, if it has one, is Tomas. Like all Kundera's men, he is a slightly creepy character, cerebral to the point of bloodlessness yet an enthusiastic and even, in the later stages of the book, a maniacally dedicated womaniser - Tereza realises he is betraying her when she identifies the odd odour she has been detecting on his hair in bed every night as the smell of his many mistresses' groins.
One day it occurs to Tomas that those old communists who acknowledge there will be no socialist heaven on Earth, but defend their former actions by insisting they did genuinely believe such an apotheosis to be possible, should by rights follow the example of Oedipus, who, although innocent of crime, nevertheless put out his eyes when he discovered what misfortunes he had unwittingly brought about. When this thesis is published in the letters column of a radical Prague newspaper, Tomas is forced out of his job and has to take up general practice in a provincial town; however, it is the nature of totalitarian regimes never to forget, and eventually he is driven out of medicine altogether and takes up window cleaning instead, which he finds surprisingly congenial, not only because of the sudden "lightness" of his new life, but because the job offers endless opportunities for philandering.
Kundera is the most unjudgmental of moralists. When Franz tells Sabina that a philosopher had once accused him of having nothing in his work but "unverifiable speculation" one cannot help thinking that something like the same accusation might be levelled at Kundera. In the midst of much wan theorising, the most moving episode in the book relates the death of Tereza's and Tomas's dog Karenin, a wonderful character, and more vividly drawn than any of his human counterparts. Like JM Coetzee, a writer he resembles in several ways, Kundera has always been a passionate defender of animals, not out of simple sentiment, but in the conviction that it is by our treatment of animals that we most clearly display our essential and unforgivable arrogance as a species.
"True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists in its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental débcle, a débcle so fundamental that all others stem from it."
It is insights such as this that give The Unbearable Lightness of Being its significance. A novel, even a novel by so engagé a writer as Kundera, must be judged in terms of art, and not of its moral, social or political weight. There is too much spilt politics in The Unbearable Lightness for its own good. What is remarkable, however, is that a work so firmly rooted in its time has not dated. The world, and particularly that part of the world we used to call, with fine carelessness, eastern Europe, has changed profoundly since 1984, but Kundera's novel seems as relevant now as it did when it was first published. Relevance, however, is nothing compared with that sense of felt life which the truly great novelists communicate. And lightness, in art, more often seems like slightness.