a weekly column by Robert Westbrook
History has witnessed many different kinds of revolution, bloody and tame, but never quite anything like the “Velvet Revolution” that took place in Czechoslovakia beginning in the mid-1960s with the “Prague Spring,” a premature thaw that was crushed temporarily by Soviet tanks in 1968 but led finally to the overthrow of Communism in 1989.
In France, they cut off heads; America had itself a famous tea party. But in Prague, it was the artists, intellectuals, and rock ‘n roll musicians who seized the moment and took power, making an avant-garde writer their president of the new democratic Czech Republic – Vaclav Havel, playwright and philosopher. Never before or since have artists had quite such a role in shaping political events.
It is from this heady time of Czech history, a truly literary time, that author Milan Kundera fashioned his bubbly masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The title says it all: the heaviness of life is comfortable, our dull routine that weighs us down. Yet though it is difficult, unbearable at times, we must loosen our souls and let ourselves be . . . well, high. This is a message born of the 1960s with the Beatles, who were listened to avidly on secret radios by the youth of Eastern Europe; it was furthered by the poet Allen Ginsberg (who made an important visit to Prague in 1965), and continued with psychedelic Czech rock bands that modeled themselves on the West with names such as The Primitives and The Plastic People of the Universe. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is more than a good novel, it’s a distillation of this fascinating time, the voice of the Velvet Revolution. (A revolution, incidentally, which borrowed its name from a New York rock band, the Velvet Underground.)
The story concerns the overlapping fates of two couples. First, there is Tomas, a doctor and womanizer, and Tereza, a young woman from the country who washes almost by accident into his life. And second, the sexy Sabina, a painter who finds it erotic to stand in front of her mirror dressed only in her underwear and a bowler hat, and the faithful Franz, who is as loyal to Sabina as Tomas is faithless to Tereza. “The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities,” Kundera admits, interrupting his story to comment on the action, as he does from time to time. Going back and forth between these couples, Kundera spins a tale of life in difficult times, with the 1968 invasion of Soviet tanks as a kind of recurring motif, the pivotal point of hardship from which the stories revolve.
Tomas, who is the most central character of the novel, loses his job as a doctor and must work as a window washer after he writes a letter to a newspaper critical of the Soviet occupation. In a section that is oddly reminiscent of the McCarthy blacklisting era in America, he is told he can be a surgeon again only if he will publicly recant his anti-Communist stand. The question becomes, how does an intelligent, moral person navigate dark periods of history such as this? Fortunately for Tomas, he finds he enjoys being a window washer, a job which gives him a wonderful opportunity to meet women.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is simultaneously sexy and intellectual, a book of ideas that takes high flights of fancy, but is earthy and extremely funny at the same time. History occasionally has the last laugh, making mincemeat of our individual dreams: war, revolution, bombs dropping from the sky to interrupt our private meditations. Today, as history once again turns dark, Milan Kundera’s masterpiece from 1984 has new relevance: how to find lightness in heavy times.
has a new novel out this year, Ignorance
– yet another intriguing title that expresses the historical
moment particularly well. This is an author worth reading: dense with
ideas, but so sharp and funny, you will be turning pages quickly to
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