The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

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Five stars, read in March 2013.

I could never have predicted how much I was going to love this book. It’s one that’s been sort of vaguely on my to-read list for a long time, but without any urgency behind it. After I watched Chocolat, loved Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin, looked them up, and discovered that they were also in this movie together, I thought again that I should read the book someday. And then one day when I was at the library, I just sort of grabbed it from a display as I walked past. It sat on my shelf for a couple days while I finished Kindred, but then I picked it up one night and found myself 61 pages in before I knew it.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being takes place during the Prague Spring of the late 60s and 70s, telling the story of two men and two women and their relationships with each other. It’s thought-provoking, full of fascinating musings on life and love and coincidence and what it means to be happy.

We can never know what we want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come. Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone? There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, “sketch” is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture. Einmal ist keinmal, says Tomas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.

I considered several quotes to share here, and the funny thing is that I wouldn’t necessarily say I agree with any of them. But I love the existential approach, the questions, the thoughts this book inspires and the concepts it explores. If you’re into philosophy or historical fiction, I would gladly recommend it.

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