Page 201. " Men who pursue a multitude of women "

The narrator defines two contrasting types of Don Juan (see Bookmark, page 124): the “lyrical” and the “epic.” The former looks for that one ideal woman in all women and therefore is doomed to be disappointed by each one he meets, the latter is interested in what is unique about each woman and therefore enjoys all of them.

Tomas is an epic womanizer, the narrator assures us. But that may not remain the case, or may not actually be true (see Bookmark, page 237).

Page 202. " Fellini's fascination with monsters "

Federico Fellini, 1965
Public DomainFederico Fellini, 1965

Federico Fellini (1920-1993) was an Italian film director with a flamboyant personal and video style. Although he started out a neorealist, his movies eventually developed a mix of fantasy, dreams, and realism. The adjective “Felliniesque,” according to Peter Bondanella, author of The Films of Federico Fellini, applies to “any kind of extravagant, fanciful, even baroque image in the cinema and in art in general.”

In the documentary “Fellini: I’m a Born Liar,” the director describes neurosis as “a treasure trove, guarded by monsters….” The filmmaker’s love for the strange and grotesque can be sensed in a list of directors from a younger generation who cite him as an influence: David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and Tim Burton.

His best-known films include “La Strada,” “Nights of Cabiria” (the inspiration for the American musical “Sweet Charity”), “La Dolce Vita,” “Satyricon,” and “Amarcord.”

Page 210. " Cossacks "

Cossack officer
Public DomainCossack officer
Cossacks were military officers in the Ukraine and Russia, dating at least as far back as the 15th century. Though somewhat independent of the regular Russian military, they functioned as a sort of elite mercenary force, and by the 18th century served primarily as guards at national and internal ethnic borders.

The image of Cossacks has been a mixture of freedom and resistance to external authority versus a symbol of oppression, particularly in suppressing popular uprisings and assaults against Jews.

The Cossack officer at right was photographed at Orenberg early in the 20th century.

Page 211. " Russian Civil War of 1918 "

Images from the Russian Civil War
Public DomainImages from the Russian Civil War
The civil war that followed the collapse of the Russian provisional government involved many parties and took place in a variety of lands. It lasted from 1917 to 1920 (roughly contemporaneous with the First World War in Europe), though the fiercest fighting took place in 1918-1920.

Soviets under the domination of the Bolshevik party took over in St. Petersburg. Their Red Army engaged a loose confederation of counter-revolutionary forces (some of whom remained loyal to the Tsar) known collectively as the White Army or White Russians.

Other opponents of the Bolsheviks included the Ukrainian nationalist Green Army, the Ukrainian anarchist Black Army, the Japanese, various warlords, and even Allied Forces that included Americans fighting in North Russia and Siberia.

Images in the photographs to the left, clockwise from top: Soldiers of the Don Army in 1919; a White Russian infantry division in March 1920; soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Army; Leon Trotsky in 1918; hanging of Bolsheviks by the Czechoslovak Corps.

Page 211. " the Two Thousand Words "

Ludvik Vakulik in 2006
Public DomainLudvik Vakulik in 2006

This was the name of a manifesto written by Czech writer and journalist Ludvik Vaculik during the Prague Spring (see Bookmarks, pages 25, 26, and 96). It was published on June 27, 1968 in three different Czech journals with sixty signatures of distinguished citizens as well as ordinary laborers. Rather than open revolution, it called for the people of Czechoslovakia to hold the Communist Party accountable to standards of openness.

Vaculík (1926- ) was a journalist and author who tended to hang out with the radical socialists in the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union -- a group with included Kundera and Jan Prochazka (see Bookmark, page 133). His document appealed to ordinary Czech citizens to establish their own watchdog committees to make socialist reform a grass-roots movement, but Czech Communist officials and their Soviet sponsors interpreted this as a call for counter-revolutionary activity.

As the narrator explains, after the Soviet invasion and crackdown in August, the occupiers became very interested in anyone who was on record as having supported “the Two Thousand Words.”

Page 212. " Voltaire or Balzac or Tolstoy "
Honoré de Balzac, 1842
Public DomainHonoré de Balzac, 1842

This is a casual listing of major world authors, whose sex lives have probably been much more difficult to document than those of even minor Czech writers, according to Tomas’s editor friend, since the latter had presumably been bugged and under surveillance by Soviet secret police.

Voltaire was the pen name of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), writer, philosopher, and wit of the French Enlightenment. Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was a French novelist and playwright of 19th-century realism. (Shown at right is an 1842 daguerreotype of Balzac by Louis-Auguste Bisson.)

Tolstoy was of course the Russian author of Anna Karenina (see Bookmarks, pages 8 and 24).

Page 215. " separate the wheat from the chaff "

Chaff is the dry, inedible sheathe of cereal grain that must be removed before the latter can be used to make bread and other foodstuffs. Thus, the process of “separating the wheat from the chaff” has been a common metaphor for dividing things (or, often enough, people) that are worthwhile from those of no value.

The expression turns up several times in the Bible -- in Psalm 1, for example, which refers to “the wicked,” who “are like chaff that the wind blows away”; or in Matthew 3:12, where the Lord’s “winnowing fork” will “clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This illustration depicts men threshing with hand flails, in a Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies Ltd. (a British agricultural machinery firm) lithographed advertising poster, circa 1875.


Threshing with flails to separate the wheat from the chaff
Public DomainThreshing with flails to separate the wheat from the chaff


Here, in the Unbearable Lightness, the editor and Tomas's son visit Tomas after his firing from the hospital, when he is making ends meet by being a window washer, and ask him to sign a petition demanding the regime release all political prisoners. His son calls it "separating the wheat from the chaff," by showing who is brave enough to sign the petition and defy the regime.

Tomas realizes his signature, though somewhat prestigious as being that of a person who has already defied the regime, would not be as effective as the signature of someone who has not yet stood up to the authorities. But such a person would of course be less likely to sign because it would only call down trouble on his own head. Tomas also recognizes that bringing further attention to political prisoners by demanding their release would, by calling attention to them, only make it less likely that they would be released.

So he is on the fence about it, not because he is afraid of the regime (he already has almost nothing to lose), but because the gesture would be at best futile, and at worst, counter-productive. Separating the wheat from the chaff seems rather beside the point.

Page 219. " Romulus, Moses, Oedipus "

Capitoline wolf suckles Romulus and Remus
Public DomainCapitoline wolf suckles Romulus and Remus
A casual selection of semi-mythical and mythical figures that Tomas thinks of while discussing his article about Oedipus -- which was partly responsible for his losing his job as a surgeon -- with the editor. He was reminded originally of Moses because Tereza had come into his life unexpectedly and unbidden, like baby Moses to Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses and Oedipus have already been mentioned several times (see Bookmarks for pages 6, 10, and 11 for Moses; pages 11 and 153 for Oedipus). 

Romulus was one of two brothers who are regarded as the traditional founders of Rome. One myth has a servant disobeying an order from the infant twins’ uncle to put them to death, and he instead places them in a basket that carries them downstream on the Tiber River (somewhat similar to the story of Moses in the bulrush basket). According to tradition, Romulus and Remus were twin sons who argued about where to locate the city, and during the dispute Romulus killed his brother.

Some historians have argued for the historical reality of Romulus, the first King of Rome. This bronze statue of the Capitoline Wolf, who in the myth was supposed to have suckled the twins after they were abandoned, dates from the 13th century, although the infants were added in the 15th century.

Page 222. " Istanbul or Lisbon "

Hagia Sophia
Public DomainHagia Sophia
The narrator offers these as two cities to which a hypothetical beautiful woman desired by Tomas might have disappeared by train (although this is offered as a metaphor to describe Tomas's feeling when he realizes how he misses the tall, stooped editor who disappeared before Tomas could have gotten to know him better).

Istanbul is a megacity in Turkey -- the fifth largest in the world -- and it stands on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait that runs between the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea and constitutes the border between Europe and Asia. During the eras of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Istanbul was known as Byzantium and then Constantinople. Lisbon is the capital and largest city of Portugal.

The two cities are situated roughly at the far southwestern (Lisbon) and southeastern (Istanbul) edges of the European continent. Hagia Sophia, the former Greek Orthodox basilica, then a mosque, is now a museum in Istanbul.

Page 222. " In 1618, the Czech estates took courage "
Site of the second defenestration at Prague Castle
Creative Commons AttributionSite of the second defenestration at Prague Castle - Credit: DigitalExtropy

The 1618 incident described by the narrator is known as “The Defenestration of Prague.” Defenestration is the act of throwing someone out of a window, which is what happened on May 23, 1618 when an assembly of Protestant Czechs tried two Imperial governors (who were also Catholic priests) of violating the Right of Freedom of Religion, found them guilty, and tossed them (along with their scribe, Phillip Fabricius) out the windows of the Bohemian Chancellory in Prague Castle.

The defenestrated officials survived the fall of roughly 50 feet because they landed on a pile of manure in a dry moat. (They and their supporters credited divine intervention.) The Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria, must have had something of a sense of humor because he later made Fabricius a nobleman with the title von Hohenfall (which means “of Highfall”). The black pillar to the right of the tower in this photo is a modern memorial of the event.

In any case, this incident sparked the Bohemian Revolt, which spread to other provinces, and then to most of the continent of Europe, including France and Sweden. The Thirty Years War would destroy and denude large regions of land, provoke famines and disease, and affect colonial growth across the globe. Fully half of the German male population was killed by battle and disease.

Note: This was actually the second (more famous) of two Defenestrations of Prague. The first occurred in 1419 at the town hall, actually killed seven members of the city council, and led to the Hussite Wars (1420-1434) among and against the followers of Jan Hus (see Bookmark, page 97).

Page 223. " after the Munich Conference of 1938 "
Signers of the Munich Agreement
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeSigners of the Munich Agreement - Credit: Commons:Bundesarchiv

Signed in the early hours of September 30, 1938, the Munich Pact allowed for the Nazi German occupation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetanland -- an area along the border heavily settled by ethnic Germans. It was a peaceful way for Hitler to acquire more European territory without actually having to go to war.

The agreement was signed by Nazi Germany, France, Britain, and Italy, who did not want to fight over the land and hoped to appease Hitler by this deal. The Czech government was not involved in the negotiations.

Pictured here from left to right, just before the signing, are Neville Chamberlain of England, Édouard Daladier of France, Adolf Hitler for Germany, Benito Mussolini of Italy, and Gean Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The narrator suggests that if the Czechs had not gone quietly along with the Munich agreement, but revolted as in the 1618 Defenestration, World War II would not have occurred. Given the character and goals of Hitler, this is a debatable conclusion.

Page 224. " Two Years on Holiday "
Map of
Public DomainMap of "Chairman Island"

Often translated as “Two Years’ Vacation,” this 1888 adventure novel by Jules Verne is about a group of schoolboys between the ages of 8 and 13 who find themselves marooned on a South Pacific island for two years. Verne said he wanted to create a Robinson Crusoe-like environment in which children exercised their intelligence and courage.

The marooned boys name their refuge "Chairman Island." The illustration at left was done by Léon Benett for the first edition of Deux ans de vacances.

The boys' efforts to survive and competition for dominance were to be echoed in William Golding's novel The Lord of the Flies, published 66 years later.


Page 225. " Yugoslavia's nudist beaches "

Nudist or “naturist” philosophy grew out of the health and fitness movement in Germany, in the early 20th century. Although “clothing optional” beaches and private lands were popular in Scandinavia and the German north coast, the warmer climes of the Mediterranean obviously had an appeal to enthusiasts.

Even under the socialist government of Josip Broz Tito, prime minister or president of Yugoslavia between 1943 and 1980, the coast of Yugoslavia along the Adriatic Sea had many unofficial nude beaches. (In 1970 when I was 11, only a couple years after Unbearable Lightness is supposed to take place, my family toured the Yugoslav coast and visited at least one nude beach. The most plentiful tourists there appeared to be Germans.)

Today, the individual states of Croatia and Montenegro are still known to tolerate “clothing optional” beaches.