(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, but having lived and written since the 1970’s in France, Milan Kundera is considered by many literary critics one of the finest modern practitioners of the art of the novel. Besides his two most recent novels, Slowness (1996) and Identity (1998), both written originally in French, Kundera is the author of several other works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), the novel which won for him international acclaim and has since been translated (from his native Czech) into fifteen languages. Kundera’s novels are often touted for their nontraditional narrative forms and their philosophical investigations into the public and private histories of the human character.

In Identity Kundera again concerns himself with the puzzle of the self and the imminent threat of its loss, a major theme throughout many of his previous fictions. The mystery of personality, or the ability to reconcile one’s outer and inner “selves” into a coherent whole, becomes the central conflict for the novel’s two main characters: Chantal, a middle-aged divorcée now working for a Paris advertising agency, and Jean-Marc, her slightly younger and less socially ambitious lover. These characters, who are given no surnames and few distinguishing or detailed physiological features by the author, serve as Kundera’s medium for exploring the enigma of human “identity” in all its stripes: personal, psychological, social, professional.

Such contrasting versions of selfhood and its perplexities are first introduced in the context of the couple’s brief absence from each another. Chantal, waiting for Jean-Marc to join her at a “hotel in a small town on the Normandy coast,” is disturbed when she overhears two waitresses at an adjoining restaurant discuss the disappearance of people documented on a local television program called Lost to Sight. “She imagines losing Jean-Marc that way someday,” in spite of the fact that she nurtures the obsessive, even paranoid, belief that we live in a society in which our every move is monitored, recorded, watched. This opposition between the individual’s being and nothingness, it turns out, obsesses Jean-Marc as well. Arriving at the resort the next day and looking for Chantal on the beach, Jean- Marc mistakes her for another woman who is “old, ugly, pathetically other.” Such instances of mistaken identity stand as recurring motifs for both characters and for the novelist’s musings through them. Jean-Marc thinks, “does that mean that the difference between her [Chantal] and other women is so minute? How is it possible that he cannot distinguish the form of the being he loves most . . . ?”

Distinguishing past from present selves becomes as much a dilemma for Jean-Marc as it is for Chantal. For example, when he goes to visit “F.,” a dying friend, he fails to recognize the earlier version of himself that his friend nostalgically recalls. Jean-Marc concludes (and again, such statements seem more the pithy epigrams of the author than the psychological turmoil of a full-fledged character), “this is the real and only reason for friendship: to provide a mirror so the other person can contemplate his image from the past, which . . . would long ago have disappeared.”

Even Chantal’s dead son from her previous marriage becomes merely the premise for her philosophical ruminations on selfhood. Now, because her child has died, she feels free to despise the world, whereas when he was alive, she felt apathetically joined to a collectivity—the family structure—that she could at least tolerate. Chantal’s belief that she has “two faces,” or two separate selves often warring against each other, is not unlike Jean-Marc’s conviction that he possesses an “alter ego”—that of a marginal person that clashes with his role as lover/part of a couple.

This alter ego takes concrete form when he begins sending anonymous love letters to Chantal, who has come to believe that “men don’t turn to look at me anymore.” However, if Jean-Marc in his role as “Cyrano” is only trying to flatter his lover and convince her of her continuing desirability to other men, Chantal interprets his action in a quite different and opposite manner. After two wrong guesses as to the letter writer’s identity, Chantal finally deduces the source but then only sees Jean-Marc’s subterfuge as a cruel hoax meant to “trap her” and reduce her life to a “single possibility”: the life and love of Jean-Marc alone. Again, the issue of misunderstanding,...

(The entire section is 1895 words.)