Chatwin’s unbearably light touch

Now already more than ten years ago, when traveling in South-East Asia I noticed Unbearable Lightness of Being in the book-exchange shelf of a Bangkok hotel and traded it immediately for Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game that I had just finished (and been rather unimpressed with). I had long intended to read Kundera’s famous novel and got started with it with a great enthusiasm.

For some reason the book never worked for me. I found it irritating, pretentious and even banal, and was constantly cringing whenever another lengthy description of terrible conditions of living in a totalitarian state came up on its pages – not to mention that in retrospect I also think that Kundera misunderstood Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Return, but that’s a whole different story.  This is not to say that it’s a bad book the way Da Vinci Code is thoroughly and irredeemably bad, I just didn’t like it – quite the way I don’t like Coelho. I must say that this confession (i.e. not liking Unbearable Lightness of Being) has caused many raised eyebrows over the years – to the point that I have tended to start avoiding the topic altogether. For some reason, disliking this particular book seems to be something that has to be defended as one is almost expected to feel guilty for this, or at least have a pretty darn good explanation.

chatwinAnyway, I remembered all this because I just finished a book by Bruce Chatwin – Utz – that I enjoyed immensely. Chatwin wrote Utz in 1988, six years after Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness and just a year before his own untimely death, and just like Unbearable Lightness the novel takes place (mostly) in Prague. It is a story about Kaspar Joachim Utz, a man who keeps a fabulous collection of Meissen porcelain in his tiny two-room flat in central Prague. Although free to leave Czechoslovakia, Utz is unable to do so – being a prisoner of his own priceless collection that he can’t take with him.

A central theme in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness – indeed, the point that the very title of the book refers to – is that as we only live once, our existence is “light”, leaving no trace in its uniqueness. Or, as Tomáš muses at the end of third chapter: “what happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all”. But where the characters of Kundera’s novel collapse under the unbearable lightness of their own unique and ultimately meaningless existence, Kaspar Utz refuses to be weighed down by his inescapable predicament:

…the true heroes of this impossible situation were people who wouldn’t raise a murmur against the Party or State – yet who seemed to carry the sum of Western Civilisation in their heads. With their silence they inflict a final insult on the State, by pretending it does not exist.

Porcelain, a pure aesthetic substance which is at the same time fragile and eternal, is for Utz an “antidote of decay”. And so Utz would rather be stuck in Prague with his collection than loose in the free world without it. In the words of Tyler Durden from Fight Club “it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything”. And ultimately it is giving up our unlimited freedom to “do anything” that enables us to become the persons we want to be – as for a human being this is never possible to accomplish alone on our own.

Chatwin’s Utz is a short and deceptively simple book – similar in that sense to Baricco’s Silk. Reading it carefully, however, rewards with many layers of meaning and reference. Ultimately, like Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness, Utz is a book about our freedom and what we choose to do with it – but Chatwin manages this with a touch a lot lighter than Kundera.

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