My introduction to Milan Kundera was ‘Slowness‘ and it was chosen entirely for pragmatic reasons – it was short. I wasn’t impressed, I have to say, and took my time to read his bestselling classic ‘The unbearable Lightness of Being’.
My verdict? It’s definitely better than ‘Slowness’.
I can see why the book caused such a storm in the 80s when it was published. The ideas and themes within would certainly have shocked and stopped readers in their tracks as they grappled with such new thoughts which often go against the ‘way things ought to be’. Today, the book has lost some of its edge but it was certainly worth reading.
Like Paulo Coelho, Kundera has a habit of preaching in his stories. At times he butts in and addresses us as the novelist rather than tell us a story we can immerse ourselves in. He tells us quite early on that these characters don’t exist and they are mere vehicles for his thoughts. I wondered if there was a point to this. After a while he stops doing it and carries on the traditional storytelling manner but it felt like the spell was broken too soon and I failed to find myself empathising with the characters (except, perhaps, the dog – whose life Kundera describes beautifully). At times then, this novel reads more like a philosophical treatise. Less preachy than Coelho, Kundera rather gives an exposition of a number of different thoughts and philosophies and leaves the reader to decide what they he or she thinks of them. In this way, he is gentle with his readers.
What a variety of thoughts though! We deal with issues of life, death, sex, fidelity, the soul, religion, politics and the meaning of happiness – probably many more too I’ve forgotten. There’s much to admire in his writing on these. In particular, Tomas’s view on love and (in)fidelity is fascinating and not unattractive an idea. One wonders what society would be like if it ran on such principles. One could argue, perhaps it already does – only society does not admit it and so name it and thus does not approve of it.
Overall then, I can see why this book became a classic and it certainly deserves to remain in the canon of ‘must reads’. Does it satisfy though? I’m not sure. I have one more book of Kundera’s to read (‘Life is Elsewhere’) at which point I think I will have had both my fill of this author and also be able to decide if ‘Unbearable Lightness’ was just an early one-off brilliant piece of writing from an otherwise average writer or if Kundera has more to offer and perhaps ‘Slowness’ was just not his best day.
Perhaps my biggest issue with Kundera is one shared a little with Coelho – all can be forgiven in style and intention but the philosophy must be sound and not vacuous. Both authors can tend to say things which sound deep and life-changing but, in the light of day, really say nothing at all. Such a criticism can’t be levelled at, say Ayn Rand. For me, the whole of ‘Slowness’ was empty. ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is not – far from it – but there are times when empty words threaten to spoil the entire being of the novel.
Not a perfect work then, but nonetheless well worth the read.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org