It was by complete chance, a random bit of serendipity, that I heard of this novel. While I was working on my computer, I was vaguely listening to the television in the background. It was on Current, my favorite randomness channel. Airing was a clip from Embedded about musical artist Zee Avi (whose music is pretty great), who was in a book store talking about her favorite books. One of them was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which she quoted. It was the quote that caught my attention, as it happened to be just the thing to make me feel better at just that moment. So I decided that I needed to read the rest of the book, which was an extremely good idea.

The part that she quoted was, “What can life be worth if life’s first rehearsal is life itself?”, which is the basis of the philosophy of the novel. She added that to her it meant that, “…life isn’t like a science experiment; you can’t do option a, and then say ‘oh, I don’t like that’, and then go back and do option b… so whatever you do is just… that’s your outcome, that’s your result.’ After reading the book, I agree with her interpretation. The book’s philosophy posits itself in opposition of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence and the weight that such a system puts on life. Instead, the book focuses on the opposition of weight and lightness, and which is the positive and which the negative. If life is lived once instead of repeatedly, then actions take on less meaning and relative weight. Paradoxically, this lightness brings about suffering because people want their actions to have meaning.

At the moment that this caught my attention, I was thinking about just that situation, and feeling that if I only had one life then I was doing a bad job with it. I felt that if I only had the one chance then my actions had greater weight, which was stressing me out. Every choice seemed extremely serious and life changing, even little things had to be analyzed carefully. The quote offered me another perspective that was new to me. Instead of reading the book and finding it at odds with my previous way of thinking I found that it offered an alternative view, one that was cautiously optimistic and ambivalent while leaving the possibility of uncertainty. I found it more relaxing to think that there was no certainty and that I wasn’t the first person to be bothered with whether my actions were light or heavy.

The novel itself is narrated by the author and follows the lives of two couples. Their relationships with one another serve to illustrate various arguments concerning weight vs. lightness. The main couple is Tomas and Tereza; Tomas loves Tereza but has a very light view of sex and his womanizing causes her much grief because her love and loyalty for him has great weight. One of his mistresses, Sabina, is a free spirited artist who has another married lover named Franz. Tomas and Tereza’s dog Karenin even serves as an illustration of love and devotion while being at one with the lightness of life. The life stories of the characters are intertwined in meaningful ways, as each has a different approach to life and an affect on another character.

The story is set in many locations, but is centered in Prague in 1968, at the time of the Russian invasion and height of communist rule. These factors also play a key role in the lives and actions of the characters, adding the aspects of outside circumstances and the influence of politics to their decisions. The storyline has a beautiful way of linking these varied approaches to life and environmental influences with cause and effect, which is complicated at times but not difficult to understand. As the different points of view are revealed, new motives and ideas are exposed, and different aspects of life and love are embodied.

Reading it was both heartbreaking and soothing, the balance of the two was a further illustration of the underlying philosophy. There was something familiar in each character, especially Tereza’s love of reading and seeing books as the password for a secret society of kindred spirits. By the end of the book I also realized that it had been referenced in a Bright Eyes song, Tereza and Tomas. I’ve listened to that song a ton of times and it was strange thinking that I could have found out about this book years ago, but didn’t. Also, if I had read it at that time I would have gotten a very different impression of it, because I hadn’t begun to think of my decisions as being either important or not. It seemed like a very timely realization; to find out about this book once my weighty ideas about life had formed. That way it could offer another way of looking at things. For that this book has definitely gained the lofty title of being my new favorite.

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