Most works of fiction borrow from historical events. Therefore, for anyone to understand a particular work of literature, he/she has to be familiar with its historical context. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is a novel set in Czechoslovak. This means that it would help the reader if he/she has an understanding of Czechoslovak’s history.
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Milan Kundera the author of this book disagrees with this notion. The author maintains that the events that transpire in his novel do not necessarily reflect the history of Czechoslovak. Even if this was the case, there is still an undeniable relationship between history and fiction in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. This paper will explore this relationship in a detailed manner.
Kundera, the author of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” has previously dismissed the notion that all history can be explained rationally. The author had lived through the dictatorship of the Soviet Union. In his opinion, the absurdities and cruelties he encountered when this regime came to force, could not be explained rationally.
For instance, he questioned the drive behind Russia’s bid for world domination. His argument was that there were no prior events or circumstances that could help explain the rationale behind Russia’s actions. The author believes history is basically made of existential situations. Following the author’s way of thinking, there is a way to describe Soviet Czechoslovak existentially.
It can be defined by its location, political situation, historical background, communist influence, and culture. Therefore, the circumstances faced by most of the characters in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” coincide with the above definitions. For instance, submission to Soviet authority, flight from political intolerance, and self-exile are all circumstances that can be easily related to Czechoslovak’s history.
In his book, Kundera notes that incase the French Revolution was to happen again, Robespierre’s contribution would be compromised. This is because the circumstances surrounding this revolution have been belittled by authors and historians. Kundera quips that “years of revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions…frightening no one” (Kundera 4).
The author is wrong by making this assumption. Robespierre is not dead and gone. The only thing Robespierre has done is to assume different forms. To some he is a hero and yet to others he is a frightening villain who goes around cutting off people’s heads. Whenever a historical turmoil is over, the people who come after it has happened can only approach it from a historical perspective.
The same is true of the Czechoslovak in “The Unbearable Lightness”. The author had a firsthand experience with the situation when it happened. Therefore, his “fiction” cannot be likened to that of a today’s author on the same subject. This is probably why Kundera felt that literature and history could not be compatible. For instance, the author feels that literature either overstates or understates history. His claim that Robespierre is two different entities is understandable.
The Robespierre who “occurs only once in history” is very hard to locate (Kundera 4). However, many other variations of the character only mislead actual history. Kundera argues that one cannot rely on fiction to be an accurate representation of history. This is because when everybody is busy condemning those who colluded with the Nazi, a new breed of the “Nazi” is currently under formation. The only difference is that fiction and history cannot recognize it as it happens.
All the main characters in this novel can also relate to history in the course of their “lightness”. The main character, Tomas, is a surgeon who lives his life through a controversial moral code. Tereza, the woman he subsequently falls in love with also struggles with her lightness of being.
Sabina, Tomas’ mistress is a free spirited woman who later is separated with the pair. All these characters’ lives are disrupted by the events that transpire in Czechoslovak. Whenever an author creates characters, he/she does so by either drawing from personal experiences or by inference. Therefore, it is likely that Kundera’s characters were sourced from his personal experiences. This would directly imply that they have some relevance in relation to his history.
The characters in this novel are interwoven with the ideas of lightness and weight. These ideas are developed in great depth throughout the book. The philosophy behind “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” was something the author must have encountered around the time this book was published.
If this was the case, this philosophy most likely had some ties to the history of the time. This is true because other authors during this period also addressed this philosophy of weight and lightness. It is likely that there are certain factors that made this philosophy relevant in Czechoslovak at that time. This would tie the subject matter of this book to the history of this country.
When Joseph Stalin died, the situation in the Soviet Union began to change. The existent totalitarian authority started to relax gradually. During this time, open protests that were challenging the policies of the Soviet Union began rising. This demand for reform came to a climax when a leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovak was deposed in 1967. Alexander Dubcek replaced the overthrown leader and immediately began a campaign to change policies.
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This wave of reforms continued until the Soviet tanks invaded Prague in 1968. Soon after, the totalitarian policies began being reinstated. Kundera was himself against a totalitarian government. “The Joke” is a novel published by Kundera and it featured subtle criticisms of communism. He was also opposed to the censorship employed by the system. At one point, he urged his fellow writers not to submit to censorship. In addition, he was an active member of intellectual groups that protested against the Soviet rule.
The Soviet Union responded to Kundera’s actions by revoking his publishing rights. The authorities also gave him a chance to go on a self-exile. He eventually went to a self-exile in France where he continued to write. He later attributed his self-exile to hopelessness. Before this second invasion of 1967, the war against totalitarianism was almost won. However, when the military tanks showed up, the hope of ever gaining freedom waned.
It is apparent that the concerns expressed in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” are reflective of the situation in Czechoslovak in the 1960s. During this period, the Soviet Union’s grip on Czechoslovak was too strong to be challenged. This might have prompted several individuals to lack their meaning of existence. Therefore, like most of Kundera’s characters, most citizens were experiencing the “unbearable lightness of being”. Moreover, just like in the book some of them fled while others chose to fight this feeling.
During the time when Soviet Union’s rule flourished in Czechoslovak, the debate on self-exile was rife. There were those who felt that instead of exiling themselves, they had the option of staying behind and fighting. The argument behind this action was that by leaving, one lost his/her authenticity.
There were also those who felt that it was possible to continue the fight even when they were in exile. Kundera seems to justify his choice to go to exile through this book. He faced counter arguments from his fellow intellects at the time like Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel. The two were opposed to self-exile. It has been argued that “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” was a justification of Kundera’s personal choices.
When this question was forwarded to the author, he admitted that the characters in this book represent his “unrealized possibilities”. However, he was quick to clarify that the book is not by any means a “confession” but an investigation into the human life. All this argument proves that the situation in Czechoslovak had an immense influence on the subject matter of this book.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is a valid reaction to historical events. Kundera’s beliefs were themselves heavily influenced by circumstances in history. The author was seemingly aware of the implications history had on his literature. This is why he argued that events in history should not compromise any individual’s capacity to make well-informed choices. The author argues that overreliance in history can lead people to flawed judgments.
The fiction used in this book is closely related to historical facts. The author uses this relationship to help show that even when faced by lightness of being, one can still achieve authenticity. The book strongly suggests that authenticity cannot be tested by either oppression or totalitarianism (Kundera 224). The author of this novel tries to avoid being tied to historical facts. However, he still manages to deliver the facts about lightness of being while leaning on history
Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, New York, NY: Harper, 2004. Print.