A few months ago a friend sparkled my interest in this book by recommending it as one of the best books he’s ever read, so I decided to try it out. The story in a tiny nutshell: communism, amorous relations, censorship, sex, and lightness/heaviness of being, all under an umbrella of philosophical reflections.
The book tells the stories of four characters (Thomas, Tereza, Franz, and Sabina) and a dog (Karenin) during the communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia. It is a realistic novel, capturing snapshots of day-to-day situations, while focusing on the amorous relations of the characters and the influence politics has on their lives.
There are three main aspects of the book I want to touch upon: (1) the pseudo-main character Thomas, (2) the philosophical lessons sprinkled along the book, and (3) the discontinuous style of narrating the story.
Let’s start with Thomas, who is a very interesting character, and apparently his story was inspired by Kundera’s own experiences. He is a very appreciated surgeon who is persecuted for expressing his opinions against the political regime, just as Kundera was perceived as a rebel intellectual for writing The Joke, a book that “describes life under communism with harsh cynicism and satire” (from sparknokes). Just as Kundera, Thomas lost his position, and his life was made unbearable by the political actions taken against him.
Along the book there are short philosophical lessons related to history, psychology, religion, characters creation, and other topics. For example, there is a short reflection on the psychology of men who pursue a multitude of women. Thomas is an epic womanizer, typology driven by the “desire to the endless variety of the objective female world” (in contrast with the other type – lyrical womanizer – who seeks in women themselves, their ideal). According to the writer, epic womanizers as Thomas end up as curiosity collectors, without being ashamed of their behavior, while lyrical womanizers end up being disappointed again and again by the failure of finding their ideal. While I personally do not agree with it, as it seems only a way to explain infidelity in nice words, I like the structure of the explanation.
Another reflection I like more is related to characters creation:
“[..] characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about”
I have mixed feelings regarding these reflections. While it’s interesting to have short breaks from the actual action of the book and find out the narrator’s thoughts on certain aspects, these philosophical thoughts made the story a bit too unhurried for my preferences.
When it comes to the discontinuous style of narrating the story, reading the book is like listening to a song, pressing pause, explaining something, then playing the final notes, then back at the middle of the song … and so on. Of course, this discontinuity has its beauty, but for some reason it confused me quite a lot compared to other discontinuous stories I’ve read before.
To conclude, the book is an interesting read, a bit too philosophical and unhurried for my personal taste. If there is one thing I really want to remember from this book, it’s the following quote:
“Some ideas have the force of a bomb exploding”
Have you read any of Kundera’s books? If yes, what do you think about it/them?
‘Till next time … happy reading!
PS: there is a movie made after the book, you can check it here