Summarizing the plot succinctly is a challenge because it’s a bit convoluted. The story of several interrelated characters is set in Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s. Tomas is a divorced man and a serial womanizer who suddenly falls in love with Tereza, a woman who visits him in the Prague shortly after they meet for the first time. Tereza becomes ill, and Tomas nurses her back to health and develops the kind of connection with her that he normally avoids with his frequent female conquests. Their relationship is rocky, mainly due to Tomas’ continued casual dalliances with a lot of other women.
One of those women is Sabina, who serves as the sole connection between one set of characters and the other. Sabina is an artist who, in addition to her trysts with Tomas, is also having an affair with Franz, a married man living in Geneva, where Sabina moves when Russia takes over Czechoslovakia in order to preserve her artistic freedom. Franz is in love with Sabina and is even willing to leave his wife for her, but Sabina prefers to remain a free spirit.
Confused yet? This story of interconnected relationships takes place against a fascinating historical backdrop as Russia invades Czechoslovakia, and its residents try to find a way to live their lives amidst drastic changes in politics, work, and culture. The action moves from Czechoslovakia to Switzerland to France and back again. And against all of those political and personal goings-on, the author muses on deep philosophical issues, like the meaning of life, the effects of choices and fortuitous events, and what love really means.
My book group had some very mixed reactions to the novel. Some really hated it and didn’t finish it, many found it confusing, and a few of us stuck with it and enjoyed it, despite its difficulties. We wondered whether the translation affected the clarity of the writing or whether it was entirely the consequence of the author’s philosophical musings. Sometimes, the author even departs from the story-telling to talk directly to the reader. To give you an example of the author’s style, this is the opening sentence/paragraph of the novel:
“The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?”
I read that passage aloud to my husband, as I was starting the book on the first day of a family vacation and said, “uh-oh.” It’s not exactly beach reading.
But if you like thoughtful and thought-provoking novels, then there is some pay-off here if you stick with it. I ended up tagging many pages with quotes that I wanted to write down. For instance, in one passage toward the end, Tereza is musing about the nature of love and how the completely selfless love for a pet differs from love between two humans:
“…Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company.”
That passage really made me think about all the expectations and demands I place on those I care for most deeply.
I wasn’t thrilled with all of the cheating male characters in the novel and struggled a bit to wade through some of the complicated prose (sometimes you just read a sentence and think, “huh?”), but ultimately, I am glad I stuck with it and read it. We certainly had a lot to talk about (for those who had finished the book anyway!) Now, I am curious to watch the movie again because I don’t remember it very well. I am interested to hear what others thought about this highly regarded modern classic.
314 pages, Perennial Library