The Unbearable Lightness of Being II

I finished The Unbearable Lightness of Being today – it’s such a fine book, the author explores human feelings in such detail that the book makes us very sensitive to these details at the end. I cried at the chapter titled “Karenin’s smile.” Not because it was very sad, but because the book had taught me to pay attention to every little thought that went through the protagonists’ minds. But actually, it’s a happy ending.

It’s not a plot-driven book, as there are philosophical interventions. (Some of them quite striking, e.g. “The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation [245] or “Kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death” [251]). But the book engages you with all those amusing ideas, and the element of suspense is maintained through a shuffled order of narration: we find out what’s going to happen later and keep wondering how it’s going to come about. Certain scenes are retold from other people’s narrative perspectives.

I liked the bit about the man with artificially waved grey hair and long index finger (p. 94-95 & 126). The secret police harassing Tereza was also a curious turn of the plot.  Two passages I like:

One of them is from Thomas, Tereza’s husband, who is a doctor and likes to have his mistresses – he’s had about 200 women by his fifties:

“What did he look for in [women]? What attracted him to them? Isn’t making love merely an eternal repetition of the same?

Not at all. There is always the small part that is unimaginable. When he saw a woman in her clothes, he could naturally imagine more or less what she would look like naked (his experience as a doctor supplementing his experience as a lover), but between the approximation of the idea and the precision of reality there was a small gap of the unimaginable, and it was this hiatus that gave him no rest. And then, the pursuit of the unimaginable does not stop with the revelations of nudity; it goes much further: How would she behave while undressing? What would she say when he made love to her?” […] (195).

And a second quote about Tereza and Karenin, the family dog, who is biologically female but has a male name. Tereza and Milan Kundera disagree with Descartes’ claim that animals lack souls and therefore are simply machina animata:

“Why is it that a dog’s menstruation made her lighthearted and gay, while her own menstruation made her squeamish? The answer seems simple to me: dogs were never expelled from Paradise. Karenin knew nothing about the duality of body and soul and had no concept of disgust. That is why Tereza felt so free and easy with him. (And that is why it is so dangerous to turn an animal into a machina animata, a cow into an automaton for the production of milk. By so doing, man cuts the thread binding him to Paradise and has nothing left to hold or comfort him on his flight through the emptiness of time.)” (293).

I wish I read this book earlier in my life. I really liked the translation as well, so I looked up the translator, Michael Henry Heim. He passed away two years ago, and according to his obituary in the New York Times:

“What set Mr. Heim apart from many prominent translators was the wide array of languages with which he worked. Conversant with a dozen tongues, he translated from eight of them, spanning Slavic (Russian, Czech, Serbo-Croatian); Germanic (German, Dutch); Romance (French, Romanian); and Hungarian, a non-Indo European language.

He was known in particular for his translations of Mr. Kundera’s novels, including the original English-language editions of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), which became a best seller in the United States.”

Wow… I have also learnt that a translation prize has been set up to his name this year, awarding an English translation of a social sciences text from East European languages.

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