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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
News
people
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine