#21(7) reading: identity


Milan Kundera is perhaps best known as the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I hadn’t read that; nor actually seen the film. My impressions and perceptions prior to reading was that it would be thoughtful, philosophical and may be even melancholy enough to be not too heavy.

Identity was written in 1996, the author’s second book after moving from Czechoslovakia to France. I read the English translation, having had this one on my shelf for something like 10 years.

This was the story of two lovers, Chantal and Jean-Marc, which started while they were on holiday on the Normandy coast. She arrived before him, and each in their own ways were thinking about themselves. About who they were. (Hence the title.) Gradually, parts of their lives and personalities were revealed, like layers of an onion. The book moved from purely situational to having some sort of a plot when she started receiving anonymous letters complimenting her and yet was stalkerish. In fact, he wrote them. The conflict was when she didn’t tell him about the letters, and they started second guessing each other. Finally she walked out, got on a train to London. And he followed.

I guess it’s too philosophical for me. I was waiting for something to happen, and then i realised that it wasn’t that sort of book. The structure, with no chapter titles, only short vignettes almost alternating between the characters’ pov, was like two parallel streams of thoughts occasionally intersecting. The part I enjoyed most was towards the end when unwanted visitors arrived, children misbehaved by trashing her room and she unceremoniously kicked them out. It had little to do with the main story, and the only tenuous connection was that it made her though about her son, who died when he was five. Nonetheless, when Chantal broke down and Jean-Marc was left throwing his keys into the Seine I finally felt like they had awoken from author-induced intellectual stupor.

I’m at the margin of this world. You, you’ve put yourself at the centre of it.

Even though both Chantal and Jean-Marc found out more about themselves during the course of the book, at the end I felt like I’d only glimpsed a part of their journey. That there was more to come. The end was both ‘fade-to-black’ and sudden. I can’t decide which, because I was flipping the pages too fast to get to the end. I also can’t decide if I wanted to know more about what happened next. Basically, I can’t decide if I like this book, or I was bored by it. It’s strange. Perhaps it will permeate and brew more in my head.