Thursday, May 29, 2014

Notes Toward a Longer Essay on Kundera

For a long time I’ve marveled at the structure of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Only recently did I understand, in the course of writing recursive algorithms at my technology job, that Kundera’s masterpiece is a recursive novel, looping back through events in the characters’ lives repeatedly. I should have realized that long ago, because TULOB takes as its foremost theme the notion of eternal return.

Eternal return is Nietzsche’s statement of the idea that events repeat themselves endlessly, finishing and starting again from the first moment. This possibility, like identical Big Bangs causing the Universe to expand and contract the same way forever, would make our lives’ every moment inevitable and impossibly weighty and ponderous. But if everything only happens once, Kundera posits, then our lives become the opposite, unbearably fleeting, meaningless, and light.

TULOB’s structure follows the dictates of this theme, and of Kundera’s play with the contrast between light and heavy.  The last of the novel’s seven sections, focused on the couple’s dog, unfolds after the deaths of its protagonists have already been described. Yet that section covers incidents preceding their deaths.

In interviews, the author has acknowledged a desire to mimic Anna Karenina, which also continues for a long section after its protagonist’s demise. But Kundera’s return to the couple’s lives through canine eyes recasts the final movement with a lighter atmosphere than Tolstoy’s ending section. Kundera finds a more playful poignancy and a more innocent aspect than his predecessor.

Maybe the weight of what TULOB depicts is so great that, unlike Anna Karenina’s community-centered  final section, the Communist-era book requires a shift of perspective to a simpler species to reduce the heaviness.

The dog’s name in TULOB is Karenin.