Being a doctor is serious business. Humans have endowed health with much importance and so their caretaker on earth, the medic, possesses gravitas. Yet according to Mr. Kundera, “A doctor is [merely] someone who consents to spend his life involved with human bodies and all they entail. That basic consent (not talent or skill) enables him to enter the dissecting room during the first year of medical school and persevere for the requisite number of years.” A doctor is this as opposed to someone with a special calling to cure people, because such missions are a sham in our tragically fallen world.
Tomas, the central male character of this novel, learns this truth through love. One day at the hospital, during a break between operations, Tomas gets a call from Tereza, the girl with whom he has been uncharacteristically absorbed of late. He is very happy to hear from her and yet, because of a previously arranged date with another woman, he makes her wait a day before allowing her to visit him. Then, totally against his polygamous nature, he lets her move in.
From his family Tomas has inherited a fear of women, which, however, has never prevented him from desiring them – a paradox out of which grows his concept of the ‘erotic friendship’: “The important thing is to abide by the rule of threes. Either you see a woman three times in quick succession and then never again, or you maintain relations over the years but make sure that the rendevous are at least three weeks apart.”
Tomas tries to behave differently with Tereza; he even goes so far as to marry her. This is his attempt to climb out of the fallen world into some kind of higher realm. But he fails to give up his womanizing. “He became aware of his failure … on approximately the tenth day after his country was occupied by Russian tanks. It was August 1968, and Tomas was receiving daily phone calls from a hospital in Zurich. The director there, a physician who had struck up a friendship with Tomas at an international conference, was worried about him and kept offering him a job.”
One reason to be worried about Tomas is that he had by this time been branded an outspoken intellectual, because he had written an article comparing the Czech communists to Oedipus and recommending that they too should put their eyes out, metaphorically.
Tomas and Tereza, for very different reasons, decide to move to Zurich, but very soon afterwards, because Tereza remains unhappy and Tomas continues his infidelities, Tereza packs up and goes back to ‘occupied’ Czechoslovakia. And, because “it was unbearable for Tomas to stay in Zurich imagining Tereza living on her own in Prague,” he too returns home.
Upon his return to Prague from Zurich Tomas is advised by the chief surgeon at his hospital to retract the troublesome article: “You know as well as I do,” he says, “that you’re no writer or journalist or saviour of the nation. You’re a doctor and a scientist. I’d be very sad to lose you …” Tomas is considered the best surgeon in the hospital and everyone expects him to retract his previous statements. But he refuses, hoping his colleagues will back him, and he will thus be able to stay on at the hospital. “But his colleagues never dreamed of threatening to resign,” and Tomas has to go.
He goes into general practice, where the “mechanical aspirin-medicine he practiced at the clinic had nothing in common with his concept of medicine… He considered himself more civil servant than doctor.” One day he is visited by a man from the Ministry of the Interior who flatters him about his skills: “‘Your place is at the operating table..,'” and who asks, “‘Tell me, Doctor, do you really think that Communists should put out their eyes? You, who have given so many people the gift of health?'”
The man tells Tomas that he is needed by society irrespective of what he has said in the past. “‘Nobody requires a doctor to understand politics,'” he offers by way of bait. All Tomas has to do is sign a prepared statement declaring his love for the Soviet Union etc. He is being asked to put on the mask of a naive doctor who has been manipulated by the intelligentsia.
Tomas refuses and resigns from the clinic the next day, “assuming (correctly) that after he had descended voluntarily to the lowest rung of the social ladder (a descent being made by thousands of intellectuals in other fields at the time), the police would have no more hold over him and he would cease to interest them.”
He quits in order to relieve himself of a burden: “What could be at the bottom of it all but a rash and not quite rational move to reject what proclaimed itself to be his weighty duty ..?” “Whenever anything went wrong on the operating table, he would be despondent and unable to sleep. He would even lose his taste for women. The responsibility of his profession had been like a vampire sucking his blood.”
Finally, Tomas and Tereza move to the country and join a collective farm where the only medicine Tomas practices is putting his dying dog to sleep with an injection, and setting a farm hand’s dislocated shoulder. Tereza feels guilty:
‘Tomas,’ she said … ‘everything bad that’s happened in your life is my fault. It’s my fault you ended up here, as low as you could possibly go.’
‘Low? What are you talking about?’
‘If we had stayed in Zurich, you’d still be a surgeon… Surgery was your mission.’
‘Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions.’