BOSTON — IDENTITY
By Milan Kundera
Translated from the French
By Linda Asher
168 pp., $22
A resident of France for the past two decades, the Czech-born writer Milan Kundera has taken to writing in the language of his adopted country. His previous novel, "Slowness," was a lighter-than-air souffl of a book, paying tribute to the spirit of 18th-century France, seen as an era of leisure, grace, and elegance, in contrast to our modern obsession with speed, instant gratification, and image-consciousness.
Also written in French, Kundera's new novel, "Identity," has the playfulness of "Slowness," but mines a deeper level of thought and feeling. It is the story of post-modern lovers: Chantal and Jean-Marc.
Chantal is a woman whose experiences have given her a sense of just how fluid and precarious a thing one's personal identity can be. Now working in a glossy advertising agency, she was once an idealistic schoolteacher and a mother. When her son died at age 5, Chantal's husband and his family urged her to have another child. Her unwillingness to do so led her to seek a divorce - and a more lucrative job in advertising.
Chantal's current lover, Jean-Marc, is four years younger than she, but a lot less financially secure. He is very devoted to her and, although neither of them likes to acknowledge it, he's also somewhat dependent on her, having moved in to live at her place.
As the novel opens, a few slight shifts in their perceptions - of themselves and of each other - set in motion a chain of events threatening to destroy their relationship. The first mild disturbance in the field occurs when Chantal notices that she has ceased to attract the gazes of strange men. Despite Jean-Marc's reassurances of his enduring love for her, it still bothers her that she is in the process of losing certain attributes she had long considered part of her identity.
Shortly thereafter, Chantal begins receiving mash notes from an unknown admirer. Although she knows it is ridiculous to attach much value to such things, these letters subtly modify her relationship with Jean-Marc. Minor-seeming incidents gradually develop into major crises endangering not only their relationship but their very identities.
Chantal, for example, is acutely conscious of the mask she wears in order to succeed in her advertising job. Is there a cost to be paid for infidelity to oneself? And which of her "selves" is the woman that Jean-Marc loves?
Years earlier, Jean-Marc's experience of betrayal undermined his faith in the old ideal of putting one's friends ahead of all else. For, when he was attacked in absentia by jealous colleagues, his best friend uttered not a word in his defense. Yet his friend did not even consider his silence to have been disloyal. Modern friendship, Jean-Marc concludes, is little more than "a contract of politeness."
Both Chantal and Jean-Marc believe that their love offers them a haven in a world of fluid loyalties and identities. Yet this haven is subject to the same kinds of pressures and conflicts that have rendered other institutions - family, marriage, friendship, job - so unstable. And most of these pressures seem to arise from within the troubled hearts of the lovers themselves.
The strengths - and the charms - of this novel are more essayistic than novelistic. A variety of provocative aphorisms and insights illuminate the couple's winding, detour-riddled road to mutual and self-understanding.
Jean-Marc asks himself "what is an intimate secret? Is that what's most mysterious, most singular, most original about a human being? No. What people keep secret is the most common, the most ordinary."
Chantal learns that her very identity depends on having someone who recognizes who she is: someone who loves her. The tale of these lovers proves a perfect vehicle for Kundera's sprightly reflections on identity, self-image, role-playing, love, and friendship.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.