Identity by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1999, 155 p. Translated from the French L’identité (Gallimard, 1998?) by Linda Asher.

Identity cover

After the loss of a baby from a previous marriage, the constant refrain from her husband and his family that another child would set things right Chantal left to take up with Jean-Marc, who feels he only engages with the world through her but is fearful that is only an illusion and without her he’d lose any connection to the world. Her realisation that, ‘Men don’t turn to look at me any more,’ is the starting point of the couple’s estrangement. She begins to receive anonymous letters, keeping them from Jean-Marc, and imagines who might be their writer. Eventually their contents contain too many details of her activities to be the work of someone who does not know her well. The confrontation that ensues sees Chantal take a trip to London, in part to escape.

In its early stages this book reminded me of the work of John Banville but then it took a left turn into a phantasia of unlikely occurrences which it is a tribute to Kundera’s skill are nevertheless entered seamlessly without any jarring to the reader.

Identity, the awareness of self, is of course the theme of the book. “Remembering our past, carrying it with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining the wholeness of the self.” Saying friends help to bolster this sense, Jean-Marc calls into evidence Dumas’s four musketeers and claims friendship is, “proof of the existence of something stronger than ideology, than religion, than the nation,” but Chantal tells him. “Friendship is a problem for men. It’s their romanticism. Not ours.”

Chantal works at an advertising agency. One of her colleagues declares, “‘Only a very small minority really enjoys sex.’” When challenged, he adds, ‘If someone interrogates you on your sex life, are you going to tell the truth?….. while everyone may covet the erotic life everyone also hates it, as the source of their troubles, their frustrations, their yearnings, their complexes, their sufferings.’” Sex is never far from the surface in a Kundera book. Here advertising is characterised as, “Toilet paper, nappies, detergent, food. That is man’s sacred circle, and our mission is not only to discover it, seize it, and map it, but to make it beautiful, to transform it into song.” We are, “condemned to food and coitus and toilet paper.”

Identity is a slight volume at 155 pages but packs a lot in. However, the simile in, “her voice wavering like the lament of a woman raped,” strikes an off-note.

Pedant’s corner:- Patroclus’ (Patroclus’s,) Alexandre Dumas’ (Dumas’s,) unfriendlike (is that a translation of a French word for which there is no direct English equivalent?) “an burdensome thing” (a burdensome thing, surely? Or was it a peculiar emphasis in the French?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, Britannicus’ (Britannicus’s,) “to épater les bourgeois” (not translated, but italicised,) a curious shift to past tense for one paragraph in a section otherwise rendered in the present.

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