This slim novel (166 pages) by Milan Kundera was published originally in French in 1996 and was translated into English by Linda Asher in 1997.
It is the story of a woman called Chantal and her lover Jean – Marc. Chantal has divorced her husband , after the death of their five year old child. The book tries to explore the meaning of identity and the role played by friends , lovers and strangers in shaping that identity.
For Chantal , her identity is defined by the perception of strangers. One day she tells her lover that “Men don’t turn to look at me anymore.”.He becomes jealous and also concerned that perhaps due to getting older , she is insecure. And he decides to write anonymous but affirming letters to her , to make her feel better. But when he finds her happier after receiving anonymous letters , he becomes more jealous. He spies on her to locate where she keeps her letters and becomes still more jealous when he finds that she has hidden them under her braziers. On the other hand , when she discovers that it is he who has written these anonymous letters and he has spied on her , she becomes furious . She thinks that Jean Marc has contrived the whole thing to trap her. The two become estranged from each other , and lose their identities as lovers. Thus for lovers , their perception of each other keeps changing from day to day and the identity of each to the other is quite slippery. Their relationship fails because each has twisted the identity of the other , in their insecurity , anxiety and loneliness. When we conceal our identity from others, we lose our own identity.
This is a short but engaging novel which prompts the reader to think about his or her own identity. While discussing friendship , the book says:” Friendship is indispensable to man for the proper function of his memory. Remembering our past , carrying it around with us always , may be the necessary requirement for maintaining , as they say , the wholeness of the self. To ensure that the self does not shrink , to see that it holds on its volume , memories have to be watered like plotted flowers , and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past , that is to say , with friends. They are our mirror; our memory; we ask nothing of them but that they polish the mirror from time to time so we can look at ourselves in it.”. It further goes on to say that we view friendship “ as an alliance against adversity .But may be there is no longer a vital need for such an alliance.”
But the novel lacks a certain vitality when it mixes the real and the fantasy .for example , they both board the same train from Paris to London , only to find that it was a dream .When did their real life change into a fantasy, with contradictions between the projected identity and the reality, is not very clear.
A good food for thought in the form a novel which traverses the border between the reality and dreams, while exploring the concept of identity. Worth a read .