Milan Kundera opens the novel with a discourse on Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal recurrence. He rejects any view of the recurrence as being real or metaphysical. It is metaphorical he assures us. In a world of objective meaninglessness one must fall into nihilism unless one acts as if one's acts recur eternally, thus giving our acts "weight," the weight of those choices we make, as though recurring eternally, living forever. Kundera rejects Nietzsche's optimism and in compelling detail and poignancy he give us the story of the painful love affair of Tomas and Tereza, condemned by fate and choice to live together, yet never ceasing to cause each other enormous pain and suffering.
Tomas, a surgeon living in Prague just before the famous 1968 Spring uprising, is an incorrigible womanizer, unable to resist his unending stream of meaningless sexual flings. Tereza is drawn to him, sent to him by fate, like Moses in a bulrush basket. Tomas' constant infidelities numb her with pain; yet her unending love and need draw her to him inexorably, and he to her. From the text of a Beethoven composition he takes the line: "Es muss Sein" (it must be). He even leaves the safety of Switzerland to follow her back to Prague, sealing their fate to that oppressive regime following the Russian takeover.
Sabina, Czech artist fascinated with aspects of incomparable images in which the interface of the images betray one another. In her own life, including her love affairs with Tomas and Franz, she is the eternal betrayer, not unlike the tensions in her own paintings.
Franz is the idealist, the man who dreams the dream of the great march of history toward some better state and ends up being killed in a trivial mugging while in Thailand on a large but failed humanitarian venture.
A central theme which runs through the novel is the possibility of being having weight -- something to give it serious meaning. There are at least two cases where Tomas does find such meaning. The first is his "Es muss Sein" in relation to Tereza. They are safely in Switzerland after escaping the Russian invasion. But eventually, Terez...
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...n for such a false belief and history is against it. Further he argues that the ancient faith in the grand march is fading away in our time as people come to realize the meaninglessness of human action. Franz makes an enormous leap into the grand march in a trip to the Cambodian border in the 1960s as part of an international team to try to embarrass the Vietnamese who hold the border to allow a team of physicians in to treat the sick. After great sacrifice of this group getting there, they make their plea to the guards who control the border crossing only to be greeted by cold and enduring silence. After a number of attempts in which they cannot even illicit a response they give up and turn away in utter defeat. It is a very powerful and distressing scene, one of the greatest futility of the grand march.
Kundera is a masterful story-teller and intriguing philosopher. He pulls no punches and pounds his theme with force and repetition. In this novel his use of Nietzsche as the foil who guides his theme is brilliantly conceived and his rejection of even the moral version of the eternal recurrence (we must act as if), is more persuasive than Nietzsche's seemingly undefended optimism
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