The narrator has been thinking about the character of Tomas for years. He sees Tomas standing in front of a window, absentmindedly staring outside. It has been three weeks since Tomas met Tereza. They met briefly in Tereza’s small Czech town, but she soon visited Tomas in Prague. After coming down with the flu, Tereza stayed on at Tomas’s flat for an entire week. To Tomas, Tereza seems like a small child that has been floated downriver in a basket.
Kundera’s novel is quiet meta and self-referential, in that it is very clear that the narrator is telling a story, and he frequently interrupts it to talk about his process and the creation of his characters. This thinking about writing is a hallmark of postmodern literature, as is Kundera’s attention to language and power dynamics, such as the one between Tomas and Tereza. Tomas considers Tereza like a helpless child from the start, placing him in a clear position of power over her.
Tomas doesn’t know what to do about his feelings for Tereza, but, the narrator says, such indecisiveness is natural. Life occurs only once, and one does not have a chance to compare their life with previous ones. There is no “outline” for life, the narrator says, and everything happens “without warning.” As Tomas stands at the window, he mutters: “Einmal ist keinmal.” The old German saying, which says that what happens once may as well not happen at all, is how Tomas views life. With only one life to live, one may as well not live at all.
“Einmal ist keinmal” translates roughly to “once is never,” which points to Kundera’s opinion that eternal return does not exist. Tomas doesn’t know what to do because his situation has quite literally never happened before, and it won’t, according to Kundera, ever happen again. Thus, life can never be predicted or “outlined.” If Tomas had met Tereza an infinite number of times before, he would surely know the best thing to do.