Kundera: "Identity"

"Identity;" Milan Kundera; Harper Flamingo; 168 pp.


David Abel  |  The Palm Beach Post  |  7/26/1998

For Milan Kundera, the unsparing Czechoslovakian dissident turned Parisian novelist-philosopher, the marks of human suffering are more visible in the sight of a silent couple sitting across a dinner table with nothing to say than they are in the treads of a tank.

In Identity, the author's latest and most compact novel, a duo of featureless characters spout lectures on everything from erotica to boredom, while they search for each other's essential but elusive qualities.

Chantel, who divorced her husband after the death of their 5-year-old child, and Jean-Marc, who is four years younger and makes Chantel feel the age difference, struggle to achieve identity through the author's stilted prose.

Like this exchange between Chantel and her boss, Leroy:

"Well, our century has made one enormous thing clear: Man is not capable of changing the world and will never change it. This is the fundamental experience of my being a revolutionary. A conclusion that is, incidentally, tacitly accepted by everybody ... "

"All right, I agree that all change is noxious. Therefore, it would be our duty to protect the world against change. Alas, the world is incapable of stopping the insane rush of its transformations."

This is the novel as it used to be written by Marguerite Duras, an attempt at a self-conscious art fragment.

Identity begins with a sketch: "A hotel in a small town on the Normandy Coast, which they found in a guidebook."

Chantel arrives a day before Jean-Marc. While waiting for him, an uneasiness begins to gnaw at her. Men no longer notice Chantel. Her beauty, once a prominent part of her identity, no longer exists. So who is she now?

At the same time, in a parallel scene, Jean-Marc sees a woman from a distance that he believes is Chantel. He starts waving at her, but after he gets closer, he realizes that her face is "old, ugly, pathetically other."

"Mistaking the physical appearance of the beloved for someone else's," Kundera writes. "How often that happened to him! Always the same astonishment: Does that mean that the difference between her and the other woman is so minute? How is it possible that he cannot distinguish the form of the being he loves the most, the being he considers to be beyond compare?"

Later, when the two return to their Paris apartment, Jean-Marc resolves to pump excitement into their relationship by dropping anonymous love letters in their mailbox for Chantel. The folly of this contrived plot, which merely serves as a frame for Kundera's splatter of misanthropy, romanticism and recycled aphorisms, is that it takes Chantel far too long to realize that Jean-Marc is her secret admirer.

The acclaimed author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and spills out pages of frivolous sexual fantasy, repeats his mantra about the irritations of rock music, the meaning of expressions and the meaningless of life's episodes, and goes morbidly gaga on everything from dreams to friendship.

"This is the real and only reason for friendship," Kundera declares at one point through Jean-Marc. "To provide a mirror so the other person can contemplate his image from the past, which, without the eternal blah-blah of memories between pals, would long ago have disappeared."

After a slow 168 pages, Kundera ultimately sheds the veil of his characters and speaks more directly to the reader.

"At what moment did the real turn into the unreal, reality to reverie? Where was the border? Where is the border?" he asks.
But the questions fall on an empty, uncaring audience.

David Abel lives can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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