The Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera
Where It All Goes Down
Prague in the Late 1960s to early 1980s; detours to Paris, Geneva, Zurich, New York, and California
The Unbearable Lightness of Being takes place in a particular social and political atmosphere. Before you read this discussion, you should make sure to check out "In a Nutshell," where we give a brief history of the Prague Spring of 1968 and the tensions that followed.
All caught up? Great, because the characters and storyline of the novel are the products of this historical setting. Kundera has said that "for a novelist, a given historical situation is an anthropological laboratory in which he explores his basic question: What is human existence?" (source).
The particular setting of Prague in 1968 puts the characters in situations that pose some fundamental questions. What does it mean to live in truth? What does it mean to lose one's privacy? How do you fight a totalitarian power? How do you assert individuality against the overwhelming force of conformity? How do you communicate when your means of expression are restricted? Whom do you trust when everyone around you may be lying? Of course, these are the same questions the characters face in their relationships and personal lives.
By rooting his novel in such a well-defined historical period, Kundera is also able to draw big-picture conclusions based on small-picture scenarios. Consider Tomas's hesitation over whether or not to sign the petition asking for the release of political prisoners. The small picture scenario is Tomas. The big picture scenario is the question which follows: "Is it right to raise one's voice when others are being silenced? Yes," answers the narrator (5.15.10). As Tomas debates the personal consequences of einmal ist keinmal (he can never know if his own decisions are correct), the narrator extends the concept to the broader topic of the decisions mankind has made throughout the course of history. It's a perfect example of Kundera's big-picture endgame:
History is similar to individual lives in this respect. There is only one history of the Czechs […], never to be repeated.
In 1618, the Czech estates took courage and vented their ire on the emperor reigning in Vienna by pitching two of his high officials out of a window in the Prague Castle. Their defiance led to the Thirty Years War, which in turn led to the almost complete destruction of the Czech nation. Should the Czechs have shown more caution than courage? The answer may seem simple; it is not.
Three hundred and twenty years later, after the Munich Conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czechs' country to Hitler. Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times their size? In contrast to 1618, they opted for caution. Their capitulation led to the Second World War, which in turn led to the forfeit of their nation's freedom for many decades or even centuries. Should they have shown more courage than caution? What should they have done?
If Czech history could be repeated, we should of course find it desirable to test the other possibility each time and com-pare the results. Without such an experiment, all considerations of this kind remain a game of hypotheses.
Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all. The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind's fateful inexperience. History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (5.15.16-20)