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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera

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Plot Overview

Milan Kundera, author of nine novels and assorted essays, plays, and poetry, was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1929. While he was a Communist as a young man, Kundera then became one of the youthful members of the short-lived Prague Spring of 1968, whose slogan was "the promise of Socialism with a human face." The Prague Spring, a grassroots movement for human rights and increased freedom, got a governmental stamp of approval when Alexander Dubcek was appointed First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Dubcek outlawed political persecution, and insisted on the basic rights of humans (see www.radio.cz/history/ for more on the Prague Spring). The Prague Spring also saw a flourishing of the arts—Kundera was among the writers and artists living and working in Prague at this time. The Soviet bloc saw these changes in Prague as threatening, and the Prague Spring came to an abrupt end when Soviet tanks invaded the city.

Kundera's first novel, The Joke, was published at the time of the occupation. It describes life under Communism with harsh cynicism and satire. The Joke was published to international acclaim. This attention came with a price, however, as Kundera came to be perceived as a dissident intellectual. In escalating steps of persecution, he lost his position as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Cinematography Studies in Prague, his books were banned, and his life was made unbearable in ways similar to the persecution endured by his protagonist Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

In the 1970s, due to a change in the regime's policies, dissident intellectuals were "encouraged" to leave Czechoslovakia and emigrate to the West. Kundera left his native country in 1975, accompanied by his wife Vera, herself a banned television newscaster. The couple settled in Paris, where Kundera teaches and writes today.

Kundera won critical attention both for his prose and for his descriptions of his native country. It has been said that he "did for Czechoslovakia" what Gabriel García Márquez and Akeksandr Solzhenitsyn "did" for Latin America and Russia, respectively. Kundera was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for Literature on the Freedom of Man in Society in 1985.

New attention came to Milan Kundera after the fall of Communism; even after the instatement of a new regime, Kundera declined to go on proposed official visits to his native land, and chose not to revoke immediately the ban he had imposed on publication of his novels in Czechoslovakia. Plans were under way in 1998 for the eventual Czech publication of all of Kundera's novels.

With the exception of his last novel, Identity, all of Kundera's novels have dealt with life in Czechoslovakia. Because of the time in which he wrote, Kundera may be identified with the so-called "Third Wave" of émigré writers fleeing the Soviet Union and Soviet-occupied territories. However, by affinity, Kundera may perhaps be considered closer to another émigré and a clear influence on his writing and philosophy, Vladimir Nabokov. Like Nabokov, Kundera reacted to the Communist takeover with a critique based on fierce personal individualism rather than on purely political grounds. Further, like Nabokov, Kundera's works demonstrate a belief that the culture he had previously known and enjoyed in Prague was irrevocably lost.

Kundera's individualism and intellectualism come through in the aesthetic and political content of his work. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being especially, Kundera expressly equates kitsch, or bad, unoriginal and non-genuine sentimentalist art, with totalitarian regimes. Kundera refuses to acknowledge a distinction between Communism, Fascism, or any other "ism," and points to their similarly kitschy artistic products as the terminal proof of the sameness of the "isms."

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