Kundera grants special dispensation to Tamina and the significance of Tamina’s story to the novel as a whole. She is an omnipresent figure whose influence is felt, even when she is absent from the novel. We are invited to read other sections of the novel as reflected and fragmentary images of Tamina’s life. Like Kundera, who inscribes “himself as a witness and critic of his own book”, Tamina exists within “the book’s special fictional space as well as out of it”, an “audience” member and “principal” participant (Pelikan 255: Molesworth 71: Kundera 227). She fulfills a concurrently active and passive role, allowing Kundera to illuminate “the master theme of memory” within fractured, often paradoxical contexts (Banerjee 149). The crucial question: how does one live authentically with memory: of the past, of others, of one’s self? is underscored, embedded in the consciousness of the reader through recurring metaphors of gravity and geometry. Unpacking images of circles and lines, lightness and weight provides the reader with an interpretive thread that can be followed throughout the novel. Tamina’s unique vantage point in the novel affords us the opportunity to examine these metaphors within the contracting individual psychological sphere of Tamina herself and simultaneously extrapolate these interpretations to the rest of the text.
Tamina is driven to preserve her past in order to protect her notion of self. Kundera pictures her floating, looking backward on a raft, “adrift on the water...looking only back” (116). While attempting to exist wholly within the past may permit Tamina to attain a degree of lightness, time is both a burden and a boundary to Tamina. Tamina is caught “looking backward in a world that is moving forward” (O’Brien 102). The passage of time distances her from and threatens to obscure what she considers to be the defining moment of her existence, the memory of her marriage. Each passing moment in the present is an “invisible point”, a “nothingness that moves toward death” (Kundera 119). The world rises inexorably “around Tamina like a circular wall”; with each passing moment another brick is laid (Kundera 115). The present surrounds Tamina, “a bit of lawn at the bottom”, and threatens to cut off life giving light to the “single rose, the memory of her husband...growing in that lawn” (Kundera 115).
The process of remembering, however, allows Tamina to trace a line between otherwise singular experiences in the past in order to establish continuity and meaning to her identity. Tamina’s “project, like Don Quixote’s, is predicated on an ingenuous belief that words and images in the mind possess the power to resurrect the past” (Banerjee 146). As Tamina desperately struggles to assert coherent authority over her memories, she becomes the conscious author of her identity. “Each of us, even if only in the most informal way, is constantly writing and rewriting our autobiography and in that sense we are all doing History” (Richards 223). “She is,” as Maria Nemcova Banerjee suggests, “the reigning subject of her own love story” (167). A chronological record of her experiences (vacations, Christmases, New Years, and nicknames) she believes, will preserve not only her husband but her sense of self. The timeline thus becomes the “underlying framework of a reconstructed past” (Kundera 117-8). This linear catalogue of memory, if complete and sustained, will bring life to the past and make it capable of housing order, meaning, and, most importantly, value.
Memory alters the perception of perspective, and, in doing so, permits Tamina to evaluate her self as a function of her memory. Though she currently lives in an unnamed town in Western Europe, Tamina resides more wholly within the Prague of her memory. The narrator admits this “breaks all the rules of perspective, but you’ll just have to make the best of it” (109). Direct personal experience has a tremendous impact on the ability to judge the relative proportions of things. Like Mama’s “faulty vision”, a redefined sense of perspective where “tanks are perishable” and “pears are eternal”, Tamina acknowledges that her system of values is, by necessity, insular and absolutely self referential (41). “What gave her written memories their meaning was that they were intended for her alone” (Kundera 139). Privacy, the singularity of her experiences, establishes their worth. Tamina struggles against attempts to stamp her love with a quality of sameness, thereby rendering it “insignificant and ordinary” (Kundera 131). Kundera suggests that memories lose their individual sense of scale and significance as they become part of the past. “Just as her past contracts, disintegrates, dissolves, so Tamina is shrinking and losing her contours” (Kundera 119). Instead of a young widow, Tamina is, Maria Banerjee asserts, “wedded to the past. Midwife of memory, she presides over a painful labor in whose outcome is derision” (167). She is compelled to turn inward to create and maintain an ultra-private sphere. Tamina surrounds her self with concentric circles of silence and memory in order to preserve her worth as a distinct individual.
It is precisely because Tamina is surrounded by multiple universes of words, that she chooses to exist in a self consuming circle of silence. The process of circumscription is initially presented as a source of and a refuge from the weight of meaninglessness. Whether it is done privately or publicly, “Kundera seems to...indicate that the problem of affirming one’s existence, of establishing one’s identity, is a universal one” (Richards 225). The condition Kundera dubs the drive toward universal “graphomania (a mania for writing books)” is motivated by the painful “thought of disappearing, unheard, unseen, into an indifferent universe” (127, 147). Instead of expressing an appeal for communication with others, the desire to “turn” one’s self “into a universe of words” is an outward imposition, a desire to become a self contained statement “which allows no voice to filter through from the outside” (147, 127). Graphomania is cacophonous, dissonant, and exclusionary; it affords each individual the right to produce an unequivocal and completely isolated tangible transcription of self. “...when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness an incomprehension will have arrived” (Kundera 147).
Tamina struggles to remain afloat in a civilization drowning in a sea of words which have lost their meaning, of noise. Her silence is an eloquent refusal to participate in this chaotic shouting match. Silence seems, at first, to be an “unbelievable...unexpected gift”, able to allow or create room for one’s self, for others, and for the possibility of a true connection between individuals, “for love” (Kundera 133). In referring to Thomas Mann, Kundera even proposes that an aesthetic sense depends directly upon the presence of silence. “...for beauty to be perceptible, it needs a minimal degree of silence...” (Kundera 144). Tamina’s silence is an essential act of exclusion and self preservation. Silence creates space for beauty and self. A golden ring represents Tamina’s act of silent self definition. Tamina “keeps” the golden ring “convulsively in her mouth” for fear of losing it (Kundera 144). In attempting to protect and preserve the golden ring, Tamina enacts metaphorically a duty she willingly assumes throughout the novel: a fundamental responsibility to and dependence on memory to form a coherent, consistent, continuous, and meaningful identity.
Though this smaller circle of self remains hidden, is not projected outward like the efforts of a graphomaniac, Tamina categorically ignores and revises others around her. Ironically, Tamina, in revising all her experiences in the present within the framework of her memory, reaffirms the very notions of equivalence she struggles against. Thus, public and private circles permit acts of conscious forgetting to take place. Other men become “material for sculpture” to Tamina, as she attempts to reshape “the contours of the face” to represent her husband’s (116). As Glen Brand states, “Tamina’s memory exercise depends upon that aspect of repetition which seeks to obliterate differences so that an original ‘ideal’, the image of her husband’s face, will be present once again” (214). In her circular universe, others are either opportunities to reclaim some forgotten aspect of her husband or marriage, or they simply do not exist at all. “She is utterly enclosed in her own world” (Kundera 157). Other people “ become object-like, one dimensional, all on the ‘outside’” of the circle (Molesworth 82). Her relationship with Hugo is characterized as a means to an end (the recovery of her notebooks) and not an end in and of itself. While Hugo is having sex with her, Tamina’s husband’s face appears to her on “the white surface of Hugo’s wardrobe”, enticing her to recount the chronology of her marriage (Kundera 154). In wanting to write a book about their relationship, Hugo himself is also equally and possibly more overtly guilty of expressing what John O’Brien calls “the drive to textualize others” (103). The essential difference seems to be merely the context in which one is circumscribed: public or private. While “Kundera insists that a real world beyond intertextual circle dancing exists”, it is possible to forget or ignore this fact “by substituting for it an abstraction which serves to deny that real world” (Pelikan 250). Kundera seems to make the case that the compulsion to assimilate is an impulse held in common by humanity.
The circular motions that draw Tamina to create and inhabit an interior world composed of memories lead her ultimately to acknowledge the futility of the project she sets out to accomplish. Tamina discovers that memory is unwieldy, transient, and fundamentally malleable. She falls into despair under the weight of this discovery. “She fell into despair because the past was becoming more and more faint” (Kundera 116). Absolute order cannot be maintained because the “tottering structure of...memory” can and does collapse under its own weight (Kundera 119). The process of remembrance carries with it the burdensome knowledge that memories, even the most precious ones, can be dislodged, replaced, made ugly. Tamina allows Hugo to make love to her with the hope that through him she will be able to retrieve the written record of her memories. As a result, the most intimate memories of her husband are pushed aside by “the image of that boy’s [Hugo’s] balls, cock, and pubic hair and...his sour breath” (Kundera 159). She “knows that the loss of beauty has robbed the discipline of memory of its meaning” (Banerjee 151). Tamina discovers and the narrator vociferously concurs that “the memory of revulsion is stronger than the memory of tenderness”, that forgetting is simultaneously an intimate, conscious, and uncontrollable partner in the creation of memory (Kundera 159). In the end, “Tamina’s spiritual labor of raising memory up is inverted into a sinking” (Banerjee 176).
Tamina shoulders a heavy burden because she shares a “kindred fate” with her memories (Kundera 155). She can neither escape nor deny the oppressive knowledge of her own ability to forget. She “is not heavy with memories...but heavy with remorse. Tamina will never forgive herself for forgetting” (Kundera 224). More than anything, she wants to escape the weight of this remorse, to forget her forgetting. Unlike Prague, though, whose memory has been forcibly taken from it and rewritten, Tamina wants to exist in a state beyond the boundaries of memory, a place “where things weigh nothing at all” (Kundera 224). The desire for escape is also a desire for weightlessness. Thus, when the enigmatic Raphael invites her into his red sports car, Tamina avails herself of the spontaneous opportunity to leave without looking back and without looking ahead.
In leaving with Raphael, Tamina, and the novel itself, arrive at an “intersection of real and imaginary worlds”, the island of children (Molesworth 71). Charles Molesworth suggests that “Kundera is testing the ability of the novel to show us real history...and its fantastic meaning at the same time” (71). Rather than a specific geographical location, Tamina’s desire is fulfilled by a return to childhood. The children of the island exist in an almost prelapsarian state of innocence which is infinitely light. “In such a world, the past is not a burden or weight because the essential ideal remains eternally unchanged ...where repetitions are not variations” (Brand 216, 215). Tamina encounters an opportunity to live in a world where the borders of memory have no meaning. “She had fallen far back to a time when her husband did not exist, when he was neither in memory nor in desire, and thus there was neither weight nor remorse” (Kundera 241).
Though Tamina is reluctant (even fearful) initially, the children invite her to join their circle. “Some ten children...were there in a circle, holding hands...They opened the circle to make room for her” (Kundera 234). Nina Pelikan Straus describes the desire to exist within a circle as “a universal human impulse” (249). Tamina characterizes her entry into the circle of children as a subtle conflict, a fight. In order to cross this border, though, she is forced to surrender immediately something she values. “To identify with them she has to give up her privacy” (Kundera 240). The community of children require total disclosure; secrets are incompatible in a society where surface is substance. The function of their circle is to make its members fundamentally equivalent, to homogenize an otherwise disparate group. Tamina is a “Squirrel”, and this is enough to mark her as a member of their circle. Any sense of individual identity beyond this most basic one is ultimately either insignificant or unacceptable to the children. On the island nakedness and eroticism appear to be “inexpressive, mute, lifeless” forms of self definition (Kundera 242). They lack their usual radical potential because they have become commonplace, routine. “By seeing her own nudity in a contiguous relationship with the nudity of the children, the metaphoric relationship which anchored the memory of her husband is disrupted” (Brand 215). In joining the circle, Tamina, experiences for the first time an immediate and complete sensual existence, “a joy of angelic simplicity”, an existence without the weight of memory, imagination or soul (Kundera 250).