At its simplest level, this is merely a short novel about attitudes to love and the meanings of fidelity. The main characters approaches to love are almost diametric opposites, the surgeon Tomas, a promiscuous conqueror of women, and his wife Tereza, ashamed of her very body and unable to reconcile her husband’s habits with her view of married fidelity. While the events unfold in front of the backdrop of the Prague Spring and the difficult years that follow, this is a novel focussed on the smaller, personal image, albeit no less profound in scope.
Despite this concentration on the characters, this is a novel bound to disappoint anyone looking for character and plot development. Various scenes are revisited from different perspectives, but there is no real plot to speak of, certainly the novel ends rather abruptly without any hint of a conclusion. Instead, we are treated to a philosophical tour of what it means to ‘be’ at all. The characters are explored for who they are and how they deal with people and with the world around them, their approach to love, sex, relationships, work. The principal dichotomy on display is that between the weight of responsibility and the lightness of inconsequence, but there is plenty of musing in other fields. Kundera fleetingly touches on many areas of life, from the meaning of words and their role in (mis)communication, to the position of kitsch in art, and our treatment of animals.
For all its philosophising, this is an eminently readable book. The prose is straight-forward and the interspersed author’s comments on his creations provide plenty of food for thought, though this constant interruption might annoy some readers. Even its chapters are very short, which may have been Kundera’s intention to give the reader plenty of time to pause and reflect.