Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Karenin was not overjoyed by the move to Switzerland. Karenin hated change. Dog time cannot be plotted along a straight line; it does not move on and on, from one thing to the next. It moves in a circle like the hands of a clock, which—they, too, unwilling to dash madly ahead—turn round and round the face, day in and day out following the same path. In Prague, when Tomas and Tereza bought a new chair or moved a flower pot, Karenin would look on in displeasure. It disturbed his sense of time. It was as though they were trying to dupe the hands of the clock by changing the numbers on its face.
Nonetheless, he soon managed to reestablish the old order and old rituals in the Zurich flat. As in Prague, he would jump up on their bed and welcome them to the day, accompany Tereza on her morning shopping jaunt, and make certain he got the other walks coming to him as well.
He was the timepiece of their lives. In periods of despair, she would remind herself she had to hold on because of him, because he was weaker than she, weaker perhaps even than Dubcek and their abandoned homeland.
One day when they came back from a walk, the phone was ringing. She picked up the receiver and asked who it was.
It was a woman’s voice speaking German and asking for Tomas. It was an impatient voice, and Tereza felt there was a hint of derision in it. When she said that Tomas wasn’t there and she didn’t know when he’d be back, the woman on the other end of the line started laughing and, without saying goodbye, hung up.
Tereza knew it did not mean a thing. It could have been a nurse from the hospital, a patient, a secretary, anyone. But still she was upset and unable to concentrate on anything. It was then that she realized she had lost the last bit of strength she had had at home: she was absolutely incapable of tolerating this absolutely insignificant incident.
Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood. In Prague she was dependent on Tomas only when it came to the heart; here she was dependent on him for everything. What would happen to her here if he abandoned her? Would she have to live her whole life in fear of losing him?
She told herself: Their acquaintance had been based on an error from the start. The copy of Anna Karenina under her arm amounted to false papers; it had given Tomas the wrong idea. In spite of their love, they had made each other’s life a hell. The fact that they loved each other was merely proof that the fault lay not in themselves, in their behavior or inconstancy of feeling, but rather in their incompatibility: he was strong and she was weak. She was like Dubcek, who made a thirty-second pause in the middle of a sentence; she was like her country, which stuttered, gasped for breath, could not speak.
But when the strong were too weak to hurt the weak, the weak had to be strong enough to leave.
And having told herself all this, she pressed her face against Karenin’s furry head and said, “Sorry, Karenin. It looks as though you’re going to have to move again.”
Sitting crushed into a corner of the train compartment with her heavy suitcase above her head and Karenin squeezed against her legs, she kept thinking about the cook at the hotel restaurant where she had worked when she lived with her mother. The cook would take every opportunity to give her a slap on the behind, and never tired of asking her in front of everyone when she would give in and go to bed with him. It was odd that he was the one who came to mind. He had always been the prime example of everything she loathed. And now all she could think of was looking him up and telling him, “You used to say you wanted to sleep with me. Well, here I am.”
She longed to do something that would prevent her from turning back to Tomas. She longed to destroy brutally the past seven years of her life. It was vertigo. A heady, insuperable longing to fall.
We might also call vertigo the intoxication of the weak. Aware of his weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to grow even weaker, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down.
She tried to talk herself into settling outside of Prague and giving up her profession as a photographer. She would go back to the small town from which Tomas’s voice had once lured her.
But once in Prague, she found she had to spend some time taking care of various practical matters, and began putting off her departure.
On the fifth day, Tomas suddenly turned up. Karenin jumped all over him, so it was a while before they had to make any overtures to each other.
They felt they were standing on a snow-covered plain, shivering with cold.
Then they moved together like lovers who had never kissed before.
“Has everything been all right?” he asked.
Yes, she answered.
“Have you been to the magazine?”
“I’ve given them a call.”
“Nothing yet. I’ve been waiting.”
She made no response. She could not tell him that she had been waiting for him.
Now we return to a moment we already know about. Tomas was desperately unhappy and had a bad stomachache. He did not fall asleep until very late at night.
Soon thereafter Tereza awoke. (There were Russian airplanes circling over Prague, and it was impossible to sleep for the noise.) Her first thought was that he had come back because of her; because of her, he had changed his destiny. Now he would no longer be responsible for her; now she was responsible for him.
The responsibility, she felt, seemed to require more strength than she could muster.
But all at once she recalled that just before he had appeared at the door of their flat the day before, the church bells had chimed six o’clock. On the day they first met, her shift had ended at six. She saw him sitting there in front of her on the yellow bench and heard the bells in the belfry chime six.
No, it was not superstition, it was a sense of beauty that cured her of her depression and imbued her with a new will to live. The birds of fortuity had alighted once more on her shoulders. There were tears in her eyes, and she was unutterably happy to hear him breathing at her side.