Kundera’s most well-read novel recounts the lives of four interconnected lovers—Tomáš, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz—and a dog named Karenin.
Tomáš can’t commit to a life of monogamy, even though he desperately loves his wife, Tereza.
Tereza, though she loathes her mother and the Soviet occupation of Prague, finds she can’t remain in democratic Zurich and must return to both out of incomprehensible love and loyalty.
Sabina, Tomáš’ closet friend and mistress, struggles to create art that is not politicized just because she is a Czech dissident.
Franz, a Geneva professor, loves Sabina but can’t love her authentically or fully, pigeon-holing her as a romantic figure—just as the rest of her audience.
Karenin is a dog.
In this modern classic, Kundera reflects on what it means to be Czech in a Europe torn apart by fascism and communism, pulled toward the moderates of ideal conservatism, represented by well-meaning Americans, and ideal liberalism, represented by European socialists.
He also reflects on concepts of censorship, kitsch, responsibility and, of course, the “unbearable lightness of being,” the idea that whatever happens only once, such as human existence as we know it, ought not happen at all.
Tomáš’ answer to this unbearable lightness is a German phrase he attributes to Beethoven: “Es muss sein,” which translates as “It must be.” If there’s no way to improve upon our mistakes in this life, then Tomáš concludes we must rely on fate. Our actions are our actions because they must be. Therefore, he abandons safety in Zurich and follows Tereza back across the iron curtain to Prague.
The rest you will have to read for yourself.
This is a fantastic novel for anyone interested in Eastern European history, Western philosophy, or the art of the novel. Throughout, Kundera deconstructs his narrative as he tells it, drawing attention to the artificiality of the form and offering insights into the craft of fiction. Despite these post-modern digressions, the narrative remains compelling and infinitely readable.