Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera is a man of ideas. His essay Testaments Betrayed (an essay in 9 parts, weighing in at 280 pages) is the most conceptually dense piece of writing I’ve ever experienced. Unbearable Lightness isn’t far behind, but it’s infinitely more engaging. Kundera has such a light-touch mastery of the novel that there is no jarring dissonance when he leaves his characters behind to address some philosophical tangent or directly breaks the fourth wall. It’s a novel of ideas, with characters that exist only to frame the questions Kundera wants to ask. It’s a testament to his skill that his artifices don’t feel the least bit artificial. Thomas or Sabina are particular and real enough that one can’t help getting invested, and their situations add genuine urgency to the ideas being put forth.
The novel is somewhat less than exactly chronological and divided into its seven parts more by theme than by the passing of time. The focal idea is extrapolated out of the nature of binary opposition (lightness and weight, good and evil, weakness and strength) and remains present throughout, but each section deals with another set of ideas, from the personal psychology of the Teresa section to the hilarious inspection of our inescapable reduction to kitsch in Part 6. Kundera’s questioning is both affecting and effective. We laugh at the journalist who blows himself up on a landmine by stepping off the path to photograph a starlet on a political protest march in Cambodia, then Kundera shows how similar our own existence is to such absurdity a page later.
There’s a serious thematic overlap between this novel and Testaments Betrayed, but as much as I love his essay there’s something about the nature of the novel that allows this kind of inquisition to come across more palpably. It’s less easy to become cognitively saturated within the framework of narrative (although I fully admit the possibility that my brain speaks “story” more fluently than philosophy and that I need a narrative crutch to comfortably address the kind of ideas Kundera brings up). Unbearable Lightness functions flawlessly both as a novel of ideas and a novel of characters. It’s the best work in translation I’ve read in my entire life and (sorry, John Darnielle) it’s the best novel I’ve read this year. Get a copy and read it as soon as humanly possible.