The narrator of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is familiar to me. He’s that boy who broke my heart. The cool one who could mold and shape me with his impressive way of talking about meaningful things in beautiful words, but feared vulnerability so much that is made him quite cruel in the end.
For most of the book, I was lying on my belly, chin in my cupped hand, entranced by his familiar voice. But, in the last pages, I began to feel cheated, like the whole thing had been a sham. Of course, it had. He’d been intruding on his so-called story practically from the start, and on page 239, he comes right out and admits his fraud, musing, “…characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nut shell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about” (239). He never pretends that his characters are real, yet I loved it most of the way through. So, why was I so let down in the end?
What had compelled me about this visible narrator in the first place? I’ll tell you: that he is spinning some interesting ideas and that he is an interesting character in his own right. The boy who broke my heart. It is this narrator who we spend the first two chapters with, who has us mulling over the Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return and his own arguments against the idea. It isn’t until the third chapter that he even introduces Tereza and Tomas, the main characters, and even then he does it in the context of his own mind: “I have been thinking about Tomas for many years” (6). We take him to be a wise man because he knows so much about the motivations and inner working of his characters, always revealing the why fors and the how comes: “he feared the responsibility” (7); “she felt so weak, so debilitated by Tomas’ infidelities” (63); “For twenty years he had seen his mother…in his wife” (126). This narrator lures us with his knowledge of philosophy, and then sustains our interest with his insight into human psychology. He is articulate and well spoken. We believe there is something we can learn from him.
There must be some reason he dissects his characters for us so visibly, so without the usual invisibility of a narrator who is not an actor in the events of his story. There is, of course, and he tells us this too: “Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions is good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decisions: we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions” (241). This is right about the point where the little things that had bothered me about the book took center stage and instead of lying rapt reading, I sat up straight and turned the final pages with annoyance.
So, what left me feeling cheated about the book? It was this: the narrator’s perfection. He was too all knowing, didn’t leave any unexplained complexities in his characters, and didn’t leave anything for the reader to figure out. That, and that he didn’t even leave a single character living in the end. He killed them all.
The character arcs did not feel real to me. It bothered me that he knew the character’s dreams, that he knew them so vividly, that they were all so perfectly symbolic. The fact that both Tereza and Tomas at the end of their life change the very thing that drives them throughout the entire story feels contrived. These aren’t real characters after all. They are “basic human possibilities”. Am I to believe that they are capable of that kind of transformation? Tereza gives up her jealousy. Tomas gives up his “missions”. I get it in an academic sense, but I don’t believe it is really all that possible.
The story is just too tidy. The characters are dissected and diagrammed, and then they die. This is true even of Franz and Sabina, the minor characters. And in the end it has to come back to what the narrator said from the outset. And to me, it just doesn’t feel like a very human possibility. So, while this narrator entranced me, in the end I realized what I had wanted all along. His vulnerability. I wanted the narrator to change, to arrive at an epiphany. Perhaps to make his characters real. He didn’t. While it did not break my heart that this was so, I wound up feeling like this supposedly wise man was really sort of dishonest and cruel, that all along all he had in mind was the philosophical tenet that he’d already revealed a hundred pages before the story ended.