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Identity [Paperback]

Milan Kundera
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

19 April 1999

Sometimes - perhaps only for an instant - we fail to recognise a companion; for a moment their identity ceases to exist, and thus we come to doubt our own. The effect is at its most acute in a couple where our existence is given meaning by our perception of a lover, and theirs of us.

With his astonishing skill at building on and out from the significant moment, Kundera has placed such a situation and the resulting wave of panic at the core of the novel. In a narrative as intense as it is brief, a moment of confusion sets in motion a complex chain of events which forces the reader to cross and recross the divide between fantasy and reality. Profound, sad and disquieting but above all a love story, Identity provides further proof of Kundera's astonishing gifts as a novelist.

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Identity + Ignorance + Slowness
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Product details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; New Ed edition (19 April 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571195679
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571195671
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 41,904 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Milan Kundera, born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, was a student when the Czech Communist regime was established in 1948, and later worked as a labourer, jazz musician and professor at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies in Prague. After the Russian invasion in August 1968, his books were proscribed. In 1975, he and his wife settled in France, and in 1981, he became a French citizen. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Life is Elsewhere, Farewell Waltz, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and of the short-story collection Laughable Loves - all originally in Czech. His most recent novels, Slowness, Identity and Ignorance, as well as his non-fiction works The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed, were originally written in French.

Product Description

Amazon Review

The reader sits down to dinner with Chantal, who is waiting for her lover, Jean-Marc, in a seaside hotel. While waiting to be served, she overhears two waitresses discuss the unexplained disappearance of a family man. This blatant foreshadowing posits the central question of Identity: what we think we know about our intimates is predicated on projection, primal yearnings and the deep denial of life's impermanence. Identity reads like a musical exercise; its playing out of themes is reminiscent of a fugue. An image dropped into the narrative will be revisited from a different vantage point, tossed back and forth between the lovers; out of it will be teased every possible meaning. The 51 sparse, tiny chapters reinforce the fuguelike feel.

The plot is simple: Jean-Marc arrives at the hotel; Chantal is out walking. Near misses and mistaken identities characterize his frantic search for her, offering Kundera the opportunity to philosophize on the unknowability of the "other". When they do reunite, Chantal blurts out the distressing thought that's plagued her day: "Men don't turn to look at me anymore." This launches the protagonists into sketchy flashbacks, stilted dialogues and interior monologues, all loosely bound together by their embarkation on an erotic journey.

Key events from the characters' pasts become signature refrains. Chantal, for example, has buried a son, who died at the age of 5. Strands such as this are dropped lightly into the narrative, to be drawn out through later chapters like a needle with different coloured threads. Later, for example, the boy's death will trigger an unpleasant realization--that it was, in the end, a "dreadful gift". Children, she thinks, keep us hopeful in the world, because "it's impossible to have a child and despise the world as it is; that's the world we've put the child into." Thus, her child's death has set her free to live out her genuine disdain of the world. Although the illogical extremes of Kundera's thought can be wildly dissonant and wondrously shocking, this reiterative device of Identity lacks energy. There's no sense of discovery about these characters. They remain flat; the style effects one like an Ingmar Bergman film when one is in the mood for Sam Peckinpah.

As if in serendipitous response to her pain in getting older, Chantal receives an anonymous "love" note. More notes follow. Will they prove Jean-Marc's attempt to sweeten her sad disclosure? Her sexual awakening begins to blur the boundaries of what's real. All well and good, but somewhere along the line, Kundera concludes that Chantal is weak because she's older. Age, we are asked to believe, becomes a wedge between the lovers, even though Chantal is only a few years older than Jean-Marc, who is himself only 42. And in the exploration of her sexuality on the wax and wane Kundera succumbs to cliché: she is consumed too often by too many flames, and red is all used up as a symbol of violent passion. On the subject of male and female desire, Kundera is incomparably funny, and the novel sports some nervy images-- masturbating foetuses; our human community joined in a sea of saliva; the ubiquity of spying eyes, harvesting information for profit; the human gaze itself, a marvel, jaggedly interrupted by the mechanical action of the blink.

Kundera betrays a witty revulsion for the values and mores of the late 20th century, but with sentences like "This is the real and the only reason for friendship: to provide a mirror so the other person can contemplate his image from the past, which, without the eternal blah-blah of memories between pals, would long ago have disappeared," the reading experience reduces to an annoyance. Perhaps this is the fault of the translator attempting a breezy, colloquial tone. But it's sloppy and careless. Still, the novel's an entertainment and a good companion. Reading it is like passing an afternoon in a sidewalk café, catching up with an old friend, say, with whom one has shared youthful cynicism and diatribes against the ignominies of human behaviour. One will look back on such an afternoon and remember too many Galloises smoked, too many cups of coffee, moments of intense engagement that fell, alas, into the indulgence of a "retro ennui". --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

The French-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in the Czech Republic and has lived in France since 1975.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Nice book, very badly translated. 6 July 2000
By A Customer
I read this book first in French, the language in which it was written. Being a native English speaker, I decided to read the English version when it came out, in case I might have missed something. This is a really good book in French, but the translation is appauling, terse, and painful. I'm not surprised it has received so many lukewarm reviews in the English speaking press. This is a strong case for not rushing translations and in working with the author to produce something more authentic.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth learning French for 23 Jan 2003
Despite its often surreal flights of imagination, "Identity" is one of Kundera's more accessible books, featuring his usual mix of confused lovers and trenchant theories on the meaning of life (his theory on the nature of boredom and the reasons for its proliferation is spot-on).
However, as other reviewers have observed, the translation by Linda Asher is utterly appalling - any 6th-form A-level French student could have done a better job. As a fluent French speaker myself I wish I'd read it in the original French, as Asher has clearly translated it word-for-word, completely disregarding any subtlety or nuance, and she is obviously unfamiliar with Kundera's style. To publish such work under Kundera's name is little short of a disgrace, and I can only assure any readers for whom "Identity" is their first taste of Kundera not to be put off!
So **** for the book, * for the translation. If anyone from Faber's reading this and wants someone to do a proper job, drop me an email!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Short and to the point, but not sure what point. 17 Jan 2000
By A Customer
More elegant musings from novelist, philosopher and all-round deep thinker Milan Kundera. In this brief but intense novel, Kundera explores the contradictions of identity, how it orientates itself by the clear distinctions between what is familiar and unfamiliar, despite these distinctions being in a continual state of flux, blurred by time and circumstance. A seemingly ordinary couple, Chantal and Jean-Marc, become progressively unsettled and confused by the nature of their relationship. The effects of insignificant events mingle with deeper personal anxieties - the death of Chantal's child and her feelings of unattractiveness, Jean-Marc's romantic fear of destitution and the death of his former friend F.- and threaten to force them into a destructive spiral of reproach and uncertainty. Kundera touches on some interesting subjects, the fragility of certainty, and how friendship and identity when untested by adversity are only partially formed. Whatever its meaning, at least Kundera says his piece quickly (it can easily be read in a day) and with enough skill and eloquence to make it an enjoyable read, if a little bizarre.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars lovely 9 July 1999
By A Customer
I've read all of Milan Kundera's novels twice--except my least favorite, "Life is Elsewhere". The second reading of "The Joke" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" improved them, but the second reading of "Identity" improved "Identity" especially. Buy this book. If you aren't moved, put it aside for a year then read it again. (If the ending puzzles you, reread it slowly and carefully, remembering there is nothing to "get": Milan Kundera is always lucid and plain-spoken.)
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3.0 out of 5 stars Clearly a terrible translation 19 Oct 2012
What's going on? There seems to be a little gem lurking here. But is it or isn't it? And then you realise the problem has to be the translation. Lucky those who can read it in the original. For the rest of us, well there's still a worthwhile glimpse.
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