In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera presents the same scenes over and over again throughout the narrative. Like waves lapping up onto the shore, these incidents never completely overlap and the repeated introduction of the same events has the effect of giving the reader a more nuanced view of these events and the characters while reinforcing the importance of the scene. Kundera refers to something he calls “symmetrical composition–the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end” and insists “human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.”
Tereza’s photographs of the girls in miniskirts holding flags in the faces of Russian soldiers during the autumn of 1968 are one example of this symmetrical composition. Each time the pictures recur throughout the story the reader gains a greater understanding of the development of Tereza’s character.
At first, the pictures are a triumph for Tereza: “The days she walked through the streets of Prague taking pictures of Russian soldiers and looking danger in the face were the best of her life.” The next time the photographs are mentioned begins with great promise and it casts Tereza as having been part of a movement to “preserve the face of violence for the distant future.” But the very next section dampens the excitement. A magazine editor proclaims Tereza’s pictures beautiful but no longer au courant. Then a photographer tries to give her encouragement by suggesting she shoot cacti as a vehicle for starting a career in fashion photography. The pictures become a symbol of the world’s fleeting interest in her country. For Tereza the pictures meant freedom and standing up to oppression, but for the world they were merely an illustration.
The pictures take on another meaning when Tereza returns to Prague and finds women yielding the same pride with which they had held the flags to fight for umbrella space on a crowded street. Then, while working in the restaurant, Tereza is confronted by the implications of the photographs she took as images from Time begin to be used by the secret police as evidence against fellow citizens. The pictures which had brought her so much pride have become Tereza’s contribution to the persecution of her fellow citizens. She reflects, “[H]ow naïve they had been, thinking they were risking their lives for their country when in fact they were helping the Russian police.”
The pictures also function as an objective correlative by giving the reader access to Tereza’s triumph. The pictures carry the weight of her triumph and the reader is reminded of her strength of character when she took the pictures, but the pictures have are greater flexibility than a typical objective correlative. As the pictures recur throughout the narrative, Tereza’s feelings about (and the reader’s understanding of) them become more complex. They continue to reappear (which is the symmetrical composition part) but they no longer have the same meaning.
Kundera achieves the same effect with stories of Tomas and Tereza visiting and eventually moving to the spa town and also the encounter Tomas has with his son and the editor Tomas accidentally denounced (this latter example is freshened by recounting the event from two different viewpoints). Each time these incidents are recounted or places visited the story changes enough so that the reader gains new insight into the incident and how the characters retrospectively view it. As in life.
I attempted the same effect in my novel, Polska, 1994. By bringing a scene back up, in my case the arrest, in echoes, I can refresh the reader’s memory and provide further insight into how my characters, particularly Magda, are relating to it. This re-framing speaks volumes about the evolution the characters are undergoing and helps the reader feel as though they are evolving along with the character. It is also pleasing to a reader to encounter the same images more than once in a novel. It helps create the illusion of a finite world which could be explained within the confines of a book, and when well done, it does not feel manipulative. I would argue that the changes evoked when images and events recur in this novel keep the items fresh, as repetition can become quickly stale and make the reader wonder whether there is any sense in continuing with the narrative.
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.