Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Identity by Milan Kundera

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 .