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Milan Kundera Leaves Behind Lush Political Allegory For The Stark Human Existence Of 'Identity.'

By Zachary Woodruff

AUGUST 24, 1998: 

MILAN KUNDERA'S books are rarely direct, clarifying themselves as they unfold. The Unbearable Lightness of Being handled its material at such oblique angles that, years after I'd first read it, I picked it up again and began reading the last chapter. From there, I read the entire book backwards, chapter by chapter, and found it made just as much sense. (It didn't hurt that Kundera had been jumping back and forth in time like a student filmmaker with a Pulp Fiction obsession.)

A master craftsman, Kundera has no need for linearity. Nor has he a need for focus: He can juggle European political history in one hand and provocative sexual scenarios in the other, all while his mouth is profoundly philosophizing. He's great enough to get away with it.

Because of such sensational skills, some readers may be disappointed that Kundera's latest book, Identity, approaches its subject via much subtler means. The title comprises the theme precisely, and the story unfolds in an almost entirely linear fashion. Kundera's trademark politics, which reflected on his tenuous Czechoslovakian citizenship during Communist rule, are almost completely absent now that he's a naturalized Frenchman. And as for the sex, well...let's just say that Identity will not make a playfully erotic movie starring Juliet Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis. (Though sex does play a stark role in the concluding passages.)

What Identity does have, within its sketchy but elegant 168 pages, is concentrated thematic focus: The concept of identity is neatly explored within an isolated and very organic relationship between a Parisian couple named Chantal and Jean-Marc. Both of them are nearing their middle ages, and it's forcing them to come to terms with who they are. If this sounds like just another tale of mid-life crisis, think again: Kundera deftly steers away from the usual fear-of-death and second-childhood territory, where characters must attempt to re-establish a sense of meaning and security. He's more interested in how we manage to reconcile our selves with humanity, and whether this is even possible.

Kundera does all of this while rarely bringing up the subject directly. He gives us the world alternately through the eyes of Chantal and Jean-Marc, volleying their perceptions of themselves and each other within a few seemingly insignificant incidents of daily life which become major points of departure.

Many stories about identity conclude that love is the power that transforms us and takes us beyond ourselves. Kundera starts with this as his premise, and it's an idea that doesn't solve anything, but only opens the door to further issues. Identity begins innocuously with a scene at the beach in which Chantal realizes that "Men don't turn to look at me anymore." In fact, the scrutinous presence of young men starts to vex and threaten her. As her sexual being recedes, what becomes of the rest of her?

At the same time, in searching for Chantal, Jean-Marc accidentally approaches the wrong woman, leading him to question what makes Chantal different from anyone else. This is distressing to Jean-Marc because he's committed his whole life to this beloved individual Chantal, at the expense of a career.

In trademark fashion, Jean-Marc's and Chantal's crises prove paradoxical: Without a sense of self, they aren't sure if they can love each other; and without each other's love, they're not sure who they are.

But Kundera rarely states the paradox in such plain terms. He forms impressions around the subject, turning its conundrums into a mesmerizing dream. This leads to some lyrical, thematically flowing passages, as when a friend reminds Jean-Marc how he once complained that eyelids were like windshield wipers--a parallel that historically kept him disturbingly aware of the body's imperfection, while in the present leading into a humorous rumination about the soul; and then Jean-Marc concludes, pessimistically, that the negligible purpose of friendship is to hold up a mirror to our past selves.

Or when Chantal's work friend describes the insignificance of individuals as such:

The invention of the locomotive contains the seed of the airplane's design, which leads ineluctably to the space rocket. That logic is contained in the things themselves; in other words, it is part of the divine project. You can turn in the whole human race for a different one, and still the evolution that leads from the bicycle to the rocket will be just the same. Man is only an operator, not the author of that evolution. And a paltry operator at that, since he doesn't know the meaning of what he's operating. That meaning doesn't belong to us, it belongs to God alone, we're here only to obey Him so that He can do what He wants.

If Kundera risks turning his characters into mere mouthpieces for his ideas, he has at least given them enough plot to keep their voices distinct. It's a plot which, in its simplicity, slices right back into the theme: Chantal begins receiving anonymous love letters, and she knocks herself out imagining the identity of her would-be lover. Could it be that worldly man sipping wine in the restaurant patio across the street? Or is it the sophisticated but beaten-down panhandler resting under the tree? In a strange way, both possibilities reflect upon potential life outcomes for Jean-Marc. And, since nothing in a Kundera book is ever one-sided, Jean-Marc's awareness of the love-note mystery reflects back upon his perceptions of the various faces of Chantal. Does he even know her at all?

As if to compensate for his characters' confusions, Kundera limits himself to the simplest of prose. As a result, Identity is a short, quick read. At the end, the conclusion seems disappointingly abrupt, with so many thematic loose ends. But this is a story that lingers even after the last page has been turned, leaving the reader the pleasant process of tying those loose ends on his own. I think for this latest effort, that may have been the author's only goal: to turn those loose ends into tangible, perhaps even questionable, starting points.

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