The essay as a novel: Identity (Milan Kundera 1997, reprinted 2017)

Identity by Milan Kundera, Linda Asher (Translator), Paperback, 168 pages
Published April 21st 1999 by Harper Perennial (first published October 29th 1997)

On Milan Kundera’s novel essay “Identity”

Much does not happen in Milan Kundera’s latest novel, Identity, except perhaps in the imagination. The imagination dominates the action of the characters in the novel and the progress of the story. From the banality of contented life, the characters develop thoughts about disturbances of contentment, about the death of their beloved, about their own past and their own transience. Happiness brings with it the fear of misfortune.

A confusion stands at the beginning of the story of Jean-Marc and Chantal: He seeks her on the beach until he sees a distant figure and believes he has found her. “As he approached her, (…) this woman, whom he thought was Chantal, becomes old, ugly, and ridiculously different.” In this harmless confusion we already see the basic theme of Kundera’s novel, which sometimes reads like a formulated narrative essay, an approach that is common in all of Kundera’s works. All of the following events revolve around the inevitable misunderstanding that exists between two people, especially those who love each other. Behind the misunderstanding, however, is the question of the true identity. The title is therefore to be regarded as a frame of thought.

With his own sense of psychological observation, Kundera describes the gap that lies between the sentences that we speak and the internal processes that accompany these sentences: the preparations that precede the sentences, and the brooding over their meaning, a pondering that only leads to wrong conclusions.

For example, Chantal’s sentence, “Men don’t turn to look at me anymore,” leads to a series of misunderstandings that eventually lead her friend, Jean Marc to conclude that, “what she needs is not a loving gaze but a flood of alien, crude, lustful looks settling on her with no good will, no discrimination, no tenderness or politeness.” Jean Marc invents an admirer and begins to send her anonymous letters describing himself as someone spying on her and finding her “beautiful, very beautiful.” But why does he write these letters? And what is she doing with them? And does he monitor what she does with them? The letters at first serve to rekindle the couple’s lovemaking but as they attempt to see through the actions and motivations of each other, the two eventually grew further and further apart.

The farce is highly entertaining but that’s one thing with the narrative essays. The thoughtful narration, which repeatedly uses the narrative action as an occasion to digress, to derive general considerations from the events described, and to entertain the reader at the same time and to stimulate reflection. This art of writing has made Kundera a successful and respected author. Again and again he described in simple terms complicated interpersonal relationships. He demonstrates how behind the unbearably lightness of events, lies a seemingly deeper tragedy.

Kundera certainly drew a considerable part of this tragedy from his personal life as a dissident and as an exile. It is fair to reproach him for being able to say whatever he wants and for being able to go, wherever he wants. As if with his fame, he has ultimately dried up and has nothing to tell us now, since he is a famous writer. But this book proves that he still has a lot to say to us and he still does it with the thoughtfully ironic style of a great narrator. Between the passages, in which the artful course of the words captivates, one sees the writer, to who does not impose a theme but invites us to t seek them. He no longer artfully assembles them and we are left to construct our own meaning. He still exhibits great skill, but sometimes an overly-burdened bar can be felt from his writing but then, this is how it becomes obvious how the text should work.

Lastly, the reader should be warned not to trust the conclusions made by Kundera, who smooths out the increasing, surrealistic confusion with a lightly meant, but endearing twist.

This is certainly a beautiful book and a pleasantly melancholic reading for a few hours. It is a book that reminds us that we are in dialogue with ancient masterpieces.

Identity by Milan Kundera, Linda Asher (Translator), Paperback, 168 pages
Published April 21st 1999 by Harper Perennial (first published October 29th 1997)

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