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Milan Kundera: Identity

Milan Kundera is up there on my favourite author list with his The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

When I saw “Identity” on the library shelf, it takes a superhuman’s willpower not to resist the temptation to pick this one up.

It is only 152 pages and because I wish to explore the depth of the novel, I’m afraid this post will contain some spoilers.

Chantal is a middle aged woman who lives with her younger lover, Jean-Marc, whom she helps support financially. She had a young child who died several years earlier which is also the catalyst for leaving her first husband. She feels like the best part of her life is over. The couple is happy together, but Chantal thinks that she is no longer attractive to men.

However much he may tell her he loves her and thinks her beautiful, his loving gaze could never console her. Because the gaze of love is the gaze that isolates. No, what she needs is not a loving gaze but a flood of alien, crude, lustful looks settling on her with no good well, no discrimination, no tenderness or politeness. Those are the looks that sustain her within human society. The gaze of love rips her out of it.

One day Chantal receives an anonymous love letter, “I follow you around like a spy – you are beautiful, very beautiful,” states the first. As the anonymous love letters continue, Chantal undergoes a subtle transformation. She dresses up, she is much happier, her love to Jean-Marc intensifies. But the anonymous letters also divides the lovers, as Chantal harbours a secret and Jean Marc knew about the secret and is hurt that Chantal takes so much delight in it.

You see, those letters are sent by Jean-Marc, an attempt to boost his lover’s confidence. When Chantal says nothing of it to him, Jean-Marc is troubled by her lack of disclosure. Jean-Marc is hurt that she was so receptive of what she thought was another man’s affection, and she is hurt that he would deceive her. Misunderstandings pile on and instead of a gesture that reinforces their love, separates them.

The novel becomes increasing surreal. As Kundera blurs the line between dream and reality towards the end of the story.

The novel paints an intimate psychology of two people in love. Kundera impel me to read and reflect.  I remember I often asked myself the same thing when I saw couple in a restaurant, silent with nothing to say. In a café scene, Jean-Marc and Chantal sit next to a silent couple. After a captivating dialogue speculating about the causes of the couple’s silence, Jean-Marc concludes,

“Two people in love, isolated from the world, that’s very beautiful. But what would they nourish their intimate talk with? However contemptible the world may be, they still need it to be able to talk together.”

“They could be silent,” replies Chantal.

“Like those two at the next table?” Jean-Marc laughed. “Oh, no, no love can survive muteness.”

In this world where attraction begins on the level of the physical and the shallow, it takes awhile for most of us to get a good grasp of our partner’s identity. In Identity, Kundera said sometimes we thought we knew our other half only on occasion to see a side of our partner that we don’t.

She was cheerful. Yes, she was cheerful, and that wounded him. He watched her gestures and they were imbued with a liveliness he did not recognise in her. He could not hear what she was saying , but he saw her hand energetically rising and falling; he found it impossible to recognise that hand.

As always Kundera writes some passages in the book that made me stop and ponder, here are my favourites:

  1. What can a friend do for you when they decide to build an airport outside your windows, or when they fire you? If anyone helps you, again its’ somebody anonymous, invisible a social-service outfit, a consumer watchdog organisation, a law firm. Friendship can no longer be proven by some exploit. The occasion no longer lends itself to searching out your wounded friend on the battlefield, or unsheathing your sabre to defend him against bandits. We go through our lives without great perils, but also without friendship.”
  2. I was wrong to hope for more from him (a friend) than neutrality. If he had put himself on the line to defend me in that bitter, spiteful world, he would have risked disgrace, conflicts, trouble for himself. How could I demand that of him? Especially since he was my friend! That would have been extremely unfriendlike of me” To put it another way: it was impolite. Because friendship emptied of its traditional content is transformed these days into a contract of mutual consideration, in short, a contract of politeness. Well, it’s impolite to ask a friend for something that could be embarrassing or unpleasant for him.
  3. What judge decreed that conformism is an evil and non-conformism is a good? Isn’t conforming a way of drawing close to other people? Isn’t conformism the great meeting place where everyone converges, where life is most dense, most ardent?

Rating: 3.5/5

Identity is a thought provoking short work. I will read more of Kundera, perhaps the next one I will read is The Joke. It is supposed to be excellent.

Centred by only two main characters, Identity is Kundera’s shortest novel. But although light in pages, Identity sets out to tackle subjects that made me think about the nature of human identity and about couple who defined themselves through each other.

Do you have a good sense of what your identity is? Do you derive your own identity through your partner? Do you see your partner in a different identity sometimes? Do you think one can ever assumed different identities depending on who we are with? Is it better to live with one identity than trying to keep up with many?

I have no definite answer to this, but I would like to hear what you think about this.

Paperback. [Faber and Faber 1999], [France], [Library Loot], Finished reading at 19th September 2010. Translated from French by Linda Asher.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


3 thoughts on “Milan Kundera: Identity

  1. Identity has to be one of my favorite books of Milan Kundera! (I think I may have read all his books by now). It is beautiful. On how one’s identity disappears. I am often not into ratings because I feel that a rating can only be as applicable as one who reads the review, and not the other way round – different people have different background. But Identity has got to be 7 out of 5 … hahaha.

    Posted by Wilfrid | September 21, 2010, 9:50 am
  2. I bow to you, you ‘get’ Kundera! I had to read The Unbearable Lightness in school and never really recovered. I mean I never thought I could hate a book that much, I wanted to fling it against the wall. Yup, there’s still resentment 😀 I wonder whether I would now enjoy his works but I’m too traumatized to try anytime soon.

    Posted by Bina | September 27, 2010, 9:00 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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