Books: The shock-waves of recognition

Jonathan Keates admires another planed-down parable from the Czech master-carpenter; Identity by Milan Kundera (translated by Linda Asher) Faber & Faber, pounds 12. 99
A face in the crowd reminds us of someone we know. Moving ecstatically towards it we call out a name, only to be embarrassed with a stare of incomprehension. Another face vaguely recalls a friend or a lover. Convinced it isn't, we turn away, before an aggrieved voice proves we were wrong. To see and to look are, as Shakespeare puts it, distinct offices. Milan Kundera's latest novel asks us how often we do either and to consider the annihilating consequences of failure.

His heroine, Chantal, is haunted by images of absence and dissolution. Waiting for her lover Jean-Marc in a Normandy hotel, she finds herself gripped by a conversation between two waitresses about a television programme called Lost to Sight, devoted to those who have vanished without trace. In a world which monitors her every move on surveillance cameras, where her intimacy and solitude are violated by pollsters and others jostle her in streets or supermarkets, such obliteration ought to be impossible. Yet her ultimate terror is that were Jean-Marc to disappear, she would be morally prevented from dying, condemned to patience in the midst of an unrelenting horror.

She is not, as it turns out, alone on this obsessive see-saw between being and nothingness. Jean-Marc nurtures his own images of identity scrubbed out altogether or else changed beyond all reasonable capacity for acknowledgement. A friend he has not seen since they quarrelled years ago now lies dying in hospital. Jean-Marc pays a visit, and fails to recognise the subtly refined features of his former schoolmate in this grotesque, "like the mummified head of an Egyptian princess". His friend's fears echo Chantal's. It is not dying the man is afraid of so much as the idea that, after death, we remain suspended alive in an endless nightmare.

Not nightmares alone but the cloying quality of bad dreams hover miasmally over the lovers. Identity, Kundera implies, is defined both by the shapes etched for us in others' awareness, but still more by our own subconscious invention. Though almost suffocated through the power her dreams generate, Chantal continues to view them as a feminine refuge from conventional notions of the virtuous and virginal, "the nocturnal promiscuity that renders suspect all promises of fidelity, all purity, all innocence".

As elsewhere in Kundera, however, the untrammelled erotic charge of a woman's imagination is seen as essentially dangerous to its possessor. The more luxuriant Chantal's fantasies become, the slacker grows her grip on the traditional signifiers of selfhood. Kundera's projection of these reels of dream footage is as assured as we might expect, until the final chapters, when an element of the predictable starts intruding. Chantal is reduced to utter nakedness, but the stripping process continues, as first self, then all right to a destiny, are surrendered. She has become one of those "disappeared" of the waitresses' muttered interchange.

Crisply rendered by Linda Asher from Kundera's French, Identity represents a fictional strain certain British novelists would love to affect if only they knew how. As such, the visceral foreignness of its idiom is not the least of the book's fascinations. There is almost nothing, for example, in the way of circumstance, background, descriptive detail or attempts to place the characters.

What seems remarkable in Kundera's increasingly planed-away approach to narrative is his continuing refusal to allow humane preoccupations to take second place behind considerations of form or theory. The mask of abstractions falls away, at the book's close, to reveal the palpable reality of Chantal and Jean-Marc caught, as it were, in the act of looking at one another.