A woman…a gesture…are what got it all started. they inspired Kundera to write this master piece. This is a book of themes, across different periods of time, including life and afterlife. It tries to catch the essence of humans, the part that endures across time, the part that remains a legacy, the part which grants immortality. 

“There is a certain part of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless”. 

Immortality is the leitmotif of this book, seen under different angles where each represents a theme: self-discovery, politics, fighting, love, art, chance. To different people, immortality means something different and prompts them to behave differently. However, they all think about it. About being remembered by people they know (minor immortality) and people they do not know in person(great immortality). 

“The gesture of longing for immortality knows only two points in space: the self here, the horizon far in the distance; only two concepts: the absolute that is the self, and the absolute that is the world. That gesture has nothing in common with love, because the other, the fellow creature, the person between these two poles (the self and the world) is excluded in advance, ruled out of the game, invisible”. 

The passage above justifies the actions of Agnes, when she wanted her time with herself, asking not to be in eternity with her husband Paul after death; the actions of Paul when trying to rationalize his getting together with Agnes’s sister Laura after Agnes’s death; the actions of Laura when she thought of suicide because death could be her ticket to immortality. Being alone to feel whole, dying to reach immortality. Seemingly contradictory and irrational, but not from the points of view of people for whom immortality means something different. 

“…for death and immortality are an indissoluble pair of lovers…”

Does external appearance matter for our identity? is it an integral part of reaching immortality? Kundera explores this theme using the metaphor of faces as representative of what we show to the world. Are we uniquely identified because of our faces? Or is it something else? Our self-identification perhaps could be the passion, the fire lit within us. 

“The serial number of a human specimen is the face, that accidental and unrepeatable combination of features. It reflects neither character nor soul, nor what we call self. The face is only the serial number of a specimen”.

“Without the faith that our. Face expresses ourself, without that basic illusion that arch illusion, we cannot live, or at least we cannot take life seriously, And is isn’t enough for us to identify with ourselves, it is necessary to do so passionately, to the point of life and death. Because only in this way can we regard ourselves not merely as a variant of a human prototype but as a being with its own irreplaceable essence”. 

Kundera strengthens his point by making the after-world a faceless place, where beings know each other without the need of a face. In fact, probably he is right. At least most of the times. There are people who are famous because of their faces. Mona Lisa was made immortal because of her face immortalized by Da Vinci. However, there are other people whom we do remember  because of their deeds, their legacy, their passion of standing for a cause. We may not even know how they look. I realized this as I was wandering one day in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Without seeing the name underneath, I would not even have recognized who the portraits were. Yeah, probably Kundera hit the nail on the head here. 

The process of self-identification can be a tiring one, sometimes a fruitless quest, where one does not fully understand his individuality in a society of many. This is another theme that Kundera touches through describing the insecurities and inner struggles of Agnes and her husband Paul. “The discovery of self must have been self-intoxicating”. 

Though this book begins with Agnes, the description of her family and her relationships with her family members, there are also a couple of other parallel stories unfolding. Stories that have historic characters as protagonists. Do the names of Goethe or Beethoven … ring a bell? Interesting so far? What about spicing it up and making these stories about their personal life rather than their work? What if we go a step further and go back and forth in chapters between the stories of Agnes, Laura, their parents and husbands and the stories of these non-fictional characters? The best part is: this doesn’t feel confusing, because there is a link, a thematic link, a metaphorical link of immortality coming in different shapes and through different perspectives and metaphors. Dialogues that get spoken in real life, through letters or in the after-life. 

Kundera makes sure to include political dynamics in this novel as well. Public opinion, especially among political circles matters. He calls politics an art where politicians think up “sound bites” for their public to easily digest and then gives their verdict through polls or election results. 

What about the theme of art? How does that fit with the immortality leitmotif? Kundera poses the questions if love for art has ever existed or if it is a delusion. Do we really love art per se, or what it represents, what we associate it with? How have different art pieces gained immortality? Do all love these art works because of the same reasons? Kundera makes the point that though the artist can achieve his goal of immortality, it is hard to control how that immortality is reached, and what it consists of in essence. Can we truly control the legacy we leave in this world? The way people perceive us?

“…we will never find why we irritate people, what bothers people about use what they like about us, what they find ridiculous; for our own image is our greatest mystery”.

The next theme is also universal: Love – a great part of “homo sentimentalis” whole being. We fall in love with a picture of a person which reminds us of the way we used to feel, the body and emotional sense depending on people. Regardless of who the object of love is, we end up focusing more on ourselves. As stated earlier in this review, there is no space for a third party in the connection between ourselves and the world. No love triangle exists because the object of love is ruled out. 

Philosophical snippets in different chapters are among the parts I enjoyed reading the most. My favorite is the allegory of viewing life and beauty as a path vs. as a highway. The moment that man stopped seeing his life as a path to be walked, and began seeing it as a speeding highway where time represents “an obstacle to be overcome by ever greater speed” is the moment he also viewed beauty differently. There are no more landscapes to be admired while going through a highway, no continuous perception of beauty. Life and beauty transformed into discrete snapshots; they become transactional. Transactions aiming what? Immortality perhaps?

Some of the concepts discussed in the book may feel surreal, or even disturbing. There is no linear narrative, or a traditional plot to follow. The plot is not the main focus of the book and the narrative always transforms and changes shape, yet keeping a consistent connecting idea underneath.  Philosophizing and intellectualizing over these ideas tied under immortality is just fascinating. Reaching immortality as in leaving a legacy is something that most likely has crossed our minds at some point in our lives. We may know we do want to be remembered, though we may not be sure how or for what exactly. Exploring the multiple dimensions and angels of immortality while reading this book, can give a lot of food for thought, which is why I would consider this book a master piece. Do you share the same opinion? Let me know your thoughts by commenting below.