Sunday, July 26, 2009

Postcolonialism in Milan Kundera's Unberable Lightness of Being

Postcolonialism and postmodernism – the two recent literary trends have been strongly associated with each other since their inception. That is explained not only by the fact that they relate to the same time period in the literary process, but also because one outlines the development of another, or in other words, postmodernism became prism for looking at the postcolonial reality in literature. There are few concepts that postcolonial literature borrowed from postmodern critique: the opposition of center and periphery, free and oppressed, contemporary and old-stylish, banal and vanguard, original and loaned or propagated.
One of the works that embodies this blending is Milan Kundera’s The unbearable lightness of being. Although Czechoslovakia had never been colonized by any country, being in the so called Red Block (the groups of countries in Eastern Europe loyal to Soviets), had obliged the state and its citizens to be extremely loyal to the Communist rule. Unbearable lightness of being is, unarguably, the novel of political injustice and oppression in a specific place and time: Czechoslovakia in late 1960s and early 1970. Czechoslovakia at that time had been considered to be a periphery of the great territory of power of the USSR. A critique of Communist oppressive rule in the novel is conveyed through a bizarre analysis of affairs between Dr. Thomas and his beloved, Teresa. Kundera explores the nature of love, at least two of its facets that both characters experience – physical love and love the motherland. Because of taking a part in the improvised coup in 1968 (what referred to as “Prague Spring”, when Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia), Thomas loses the opportunity to practice his medicine skills. To make the living he becomes a window-washer. Teresa, also having taken a part in the uprising has to redefine her existence; after the coup she found herself in the photography, as her first shots of the tanks invading Prague, provoked a resonance among the bohemians of the capital. But, again, being spotted by the authority she cannot practice the photography freely. “The effect of mimicry on the aiuthority of colonial discourse is profound and disturbing” (Bhabha, LT, 381). As the time passes by, having lost their former positions, both characters have to refigure the sort of their further occupation, and have to leave the beloved country because it does not allow them to practice their vocation. “Mimicry is also the sign of the inpproriate, however, a difference of recalcitrance which coheres its strategic function to colonial power, intensifies the surveillance, and poses an immanent threat to both ‘normalized’ knowledge and disciplinary powers” (Bhabha, LT, 381) Both Teresa and Thomas chose to merge with the other indifferent population of the country in order to save their life and freedom of movement in exchange of being “mute”. “When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood),”- claims author who is strongly associated with Kundera himself.
The oppression of originality and individuality was the primer principle of the Communist rule, yet this very notion was alien to the countries fallen under the Soviet influence after the WWII.


  1. Very good--I'm always interested in these 'border' colonial situations, where the colonizing isn't exactly as it was in, say, Africa during the early 20th century. Love to hear more about the potential differences, but the comparisons are obvious, even down to the linguistic issues. And how are we to read Kundera's 'intent' in the work--is he interested primarily in these issues, or do they simply form the setting of the series of idea the book is more invested in?