Identity

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

Best known for his 1984 novel THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, which won him international acclaim and has since been translated (from his native Czech) into fifteen languages, Milan Kundera is often cited for the non-traditional narrative forms he employs and his fiction’s philosophical investigations into the human character’s public and private histories. In IDENTITY (the second novel, after 1996’s SLOWNESS, to be written in his adopted language of French) Kundera again concerns himself with the puzzle of the self and the imminent threat of its loss, a dilemma which many of his previous fictional characters have confronted. In fact, the novel’s two main characters—Chantal, a middle-aged divorcee who works for a Paris ad agency, and Jean-Marc, her slightly younger live-in lover—serve as Kundera’s medium for exploring the enigma of human “identity” in its various manifestations. The opposition between the individual’s being and nothingness becomes an obsession for both characters in their relations with one another, an obsession that drives each of them to wonder whether they can ever really know the other’s “self” at all.

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Several instances of mistaken identity stand as recurring motifs for Kundera’s characters, such as Jean-Marc’s inability to distinguish his lover from another, older woman on a Normandy beach, or Chantal’s failure to correctly identify Jean-Marc as the writer of anonymous love letters to her. When she finally does deduce the source of the letters, after two wrong guesses, this knowledge only leads to another misunderstanding between the couple: Jean-Marc intended to flatter her, but she interprets his action as a cruel hoax meant to trap her in their relationship. These examples of miscommunication are even played out in the characters’ dreams, which further fail to provide answers to the endemic uncertainties of their personalities.

Kundera concludes IDENTITY with several chapters that suggest readers, with his characters, have entered a realm of complete fantasy or hallucination. However, this prevailing theme of the self cast adrift is somewhat undercut, in the penultimate chapter, by Kundera’s self-reflexive suggestion that some, if not all, of the preceding narrative was only a dream. The two lovers are together in bed at the end, gazing at each other and reassuring themselves about their identities; however, their relationship seems far from stable since, being so caught up in trying to decipher their separate, individual selves, they lose sight of their connection to each other and to any larger communality or community. Despite these flaws, though, IDENTITY is still notable for the author’s insight into the conflict between the individual’s preoccupations and his or her social, public self, and in Kundera’s uncanny ability to foreground elements of form and theory in his fiction as a means of addressing some of the dilemmas of the contemporary human condition.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXXIII, March 15, 1998, p. 93.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 28, 1998, p. 4.

The Nation. CLXVI, May 11, 1998, p. 54.

The New Leader. LXXXI, June 29, 1998, p. 29.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, July 16, 1998, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, May 17, 1998, p. 11.

Newsweek. CXXXI, May 4, 1998, p. 82.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 16, 1998, p. 200.

Review of Contemporary Fiction. XVIII, Fall, 1998, p. 239.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, May 31, 1998, p. 1.

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