The story is set in 1968 during the Prague Spring, a brief period of liberalization in Czechoslovakia during its domination by the Soviet Union. He opens the novel with a debate between two seemingly opposing philosophies (that took a while to wrap my head around and I still feel as though I haven't yet). First, Nietzsche's idea of eternal return: that because we cannot repeat our single life, it means nothing. That if we were able to repeat our lives an infinite number of times, "the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make."
Kundera then asks: is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? He says that the heaviest burdens crush us and bring us closer to the earth and in turn more real and truthful. Then "the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights...his movements as free as they are insignificant (5)." And so we are left with the choice of whether we prefer weight or lightness, which becomes the question he explores through the characters of the novel. Some move through their existence with the ability to (mostly) keep a distance from attachment and live "lightly" without the existential burdens, believing that there is only the present moment and no ultimate meaning, but still are not necessarily fulfilled. Other characters, weighed down, wish they could learn lightness (143), but cannot stop their tendency to take meaning from the world and deeply struggle mentally.
The most shocking part of the book for me was the emotional response I had to the death of two of the characters' dog at the end of the book--and I think that perhaps Kundera designed the story in this way. The dog was the only character who seemed happy and peaceful himself and who brought true happiness and peace to the characters. My book club ended up discussing if Kundera was suggesting that the best way to cope with life is to become animalistic--to lose the constant struggle of lightness and heaviness and just be? But to do so is to lose all that makes us human. And so the struggle goes on and on, hence the title: the unbearable lightness of being.
Gah. So we sat at an Upper West Side kitchen table trying to figure it all out--we are all people who feel the weight of the world but who also get caught up in the beauty. And though Kundera by the end seems convincing that being human is a burden, none of us were convinced it was a sustainable philosophy for life--nor that life philosophy could be reduced into something simplistic. The question of heavy and light is basically the human condition and we can wrestle with and stew with the burdens knowing that there are reprieves to be found in moments of beauty and lightness. Though each person's definition of lightness is bound to be different, so there we go again.