The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

“Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 314 pages.
Read from April 11, 2019 to April 17, 2019.

Readers of this book either love it or hate and I would say that both opinions would be valid. The book covers a large scope of history specific to Czechoslovakia with manipulative, provocative, and dynamic characters. The majority of the book is set in Prague, Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 1970s and specifically during a time of political reform called the Prague Spring. Milan Kundera, the author, is of Czech origin but has lived in exile in France since 1971, where he became a naturalised citizen in 1981. Milan’s books were banned under the communist rule in Czechoslovakia and remained banned until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Readers have speculated if any of the characters in this book and many of Milan’s others are in any way autobiographical, to which Milan responded in a 1985 interview with New York Times,

“No character in my novels is a self-portrait, nor are any of my characters the portrait of a living person. I don’t like disguised autobiographies. I hate writers’ indiscretions.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being follows the lives of two men, two women, and one dog and how their lives intertwine during the years of political upheaval in Czechoslovakia. Tomas is a womanizing surgeon who marries the young and vulnerable Tereza, despite his inability (unwillingness) to be faithful. He claims to love Tereza more than anything but cannot give up seeing other women and battles his feelings for Tereza through the entire novel. Tomas even taunts her in her sleep by whispering in her ear his infidelities which causes Tereza to have horrendous and violent dreams about him with other women. Tereza is miserable and mad with jealousy but the two of them just can’t seem to be apart. The two of them have a delightful dog named Karenin who adores Tereza. One of Toma’s long-time lovers, Sabina has a similar nature to Tomas in how she treats her lovers but she has a turbulent history of her own that has made her that way. Franz is one of her lovers.  Each of the characters works their way through their turbulent relationships and personal faults as the country fills with the uproar of communism.

This prose of this book is undeniably poetic and beautiful giving it redeeming qualities long past its intriguing story, though not every reader has felt that way.

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body.The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

Many find Milan’s writing dry and dull, while others, myself included, find it to be brilliant. As I opened this review, readers either love or hate this book because is like an invitation into this place of history and into the lives of these people and if you’re not interested in either from the beginning the book will do little for you. The depth at which Milan exposes his characters is rich and at times unnervingly honest. He discusses love and personal faults in a way most would not find romantic but at least poetic and realistic, giving the topics their own unique sense of beauty and awe. Toma’s is not good to Tereza with his womanising ways but as the backstory on each character grows you find fault with each character and see how they tend to create their own dynamic miseries making you empathise with them all on one way or another.

I would recommend this book for those that enjoy literary fiction, history and historical fiction, philosophical or poetic prose (especially if you enjoyed Proust) or honest and flawed characters.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

“I refuse to “look up.” Optimism nauseates me. It is perverse. Since man’s fall, his proper position in the universe has been one of misery.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 429 pages.
Read from February 12, 2019 to February 21, 2019.

I’ve known about this book for years because of its quirky cover and title but yet knew nothing about the witty and hilarious story within it or the tragic story of its author. Written by the editor, the prologue of this novel details the strange way this book came to exist as the editor explains how he came across what would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning story.  The editor had been attempting to put off this random woman, Kennedy’s mother, who kept insisting that she has a great story for him to publish from her late son. When he is finally trapped in a corner from her persistence he accepts the manuscript anticipating he’d never read it. He devours the book an aptly publishes it with great success. John Kennedy Toole tragically committed suicide at the age of 31 leaving his mother with the manuscript of this novel. She wanted her son’s talent recognized and by getting his novel published ensured his legacy.

Ignatius is the main protagonist in this story, though as a reader you may not like him very much. He is a lazy, obese, misanthropic man-child who has some self-inflated ideas of himself. ignatiusjreillyx13j2xe Of course, his strange views of himself and the world are what make his misadventures so damn funny. Like a peculiar Don Quixote, Ignatius has his own eccentric tendencies from his outrageous slob-fashion to the idea of his “valve” and how he reacts during “stressful” situations. Yet Ignatius’ disdain for the modern world is borderline admirable and while he may view the world differently his insights aren’t always wrong and seem to tap into some lost child-like feelings that we all push aside to fit into the modern world.

“Well, I have had enough of this. I’m going into the parlour to watch the Yogi Bear program. Between wine breaks, please bring me a snack of some sort. My valve is screaming for appeasement.”

Ignatius finds himself in trouble after his mother gets into a car accident and neither of them has any money to pay off the damage. Ignatius’ mother worked hard to put him in school and has received no thanks for her efforts. Ignatius is not a dumb man but his strong views on the world and himself contradict the status quo. Ignatius, who would rather pretend to “work” on a novel while living at his mother’s home for free, refuses to work and blames his mother for many things while showing no appreciation to the woman raised him, still believes in him, and who continues puts up with him. After finally being convinced to get a job Ignatius starts his misadventures from one job to the next meeting an array of characters and situations along the way.

After reading a quarter of the book, I thought I was tired of Ignatius’ antics. He was getting on my nerves with his narcissism and the horrible way he treats his mother however, once he started working, the story turned into something amazing. I found myself rooting for Ignatius and wanting to support his outlandish ideas just to see where he would end up. The initial plot and concern about the car accident became a thing of the past as I anticipated how wonderfully Ignatius would mess and yet always find a way to get out of any situation.

The writing and character work in this novel is nothing short of brilliant and it pains me to think of the talent with lost with the author’s early passing. This book would appeal to anyway the read and loved Don Quixote or who is interested in misadventure stories with unique protagonists.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

“Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it was full again”

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 307 pages.
Read from July 22, 2018 to July 29, 2018.

Is there a book list out there that doesn’t have this book on it somewhere? Probably not. This book has been awarded numerous accolades, most recently the Golden Man Booker prize for this year. As a Canadian, this book has been on my to-read list since my university days, especially since I have already read In the Skin of a Lion, which I sadly have no recollection of. Admittedly, I didn’t even know what this novel was about prior to picking it up so I was happy to see that the plot is set during WWII as I do enjoy historical-fiction from that era.

WWII may have just ended but not in the minds of those who were deeply involved in it Hana is a nurse who has refused to leave her post at a war-time hospital in Italy despite it being abandoned and still within the vicinity of landmines. She will not leave a burn patient who is barely alive and has no memory of who is he or how he got here. A family friend, who also served, comes to find Hana and ends up staying with her at the hospital. They are then joined later by an aloof stranger who is also can’t stop being a soldier and is having trouble letting go of the war that has traumatized them all.

As a reader, you are kept at length from all the characters in the book, despite their dire emotional states thus following how the characters themselves keep each other and their feelings also at a distance. At first, I was intrigued by the approach and eagerly read my way through the first half of the novel, however, the last half felt like a slog as the intrigue wore off and I realized how the story and the characters were going nowhere. The burned patient, this unknown person who has lost their memory, was initially very compelling especially with the relationship he had with Hana, but I felt the details of his story got too messy and drawn out that by the end that I didn’t end up really caring who he was despite his eventual connections to everyone. The story of this book is like a slow-moving dream including the muddiness that often comes when you dream.

With all that said, I did enjoy Hana’s character and story and there were aspects of this novel that I loved. The story transported me to the historical setting and I did find myself wrapped in that world long after I finished the novel. Many readers feel that this book is somewhat of a love story and I find that is a bit of stretch. I feel the story is more about on the characters trying to heal through each other from their individual traumas and the unique bond of the war that connects them in the strange abandoned hospital.

Ultimately, I did enjoy this novel I just wanted more out of the story than what was provided but it was still a worthwhile read. This story would suit any historical fiction fan and while I cannot remember much of the plot from In The Skin of a Lion, I read that the two are more meaningful if paired together.  Perhaps a re-read is in order?