"Identity: A Novel," by Milan Kundera. HarperFlamingo. 160 pages. $22. Of all the dissident writers to go into exile from the formerly communist regimes of Eastern Europe, Milan Kundera has been among the most celebrated. In popular American recognition, he is probably the most famous Czech writer living (after Vaclav Havel, more famous for his role in politics). His virtuosic novels "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" were justly praised both for the wit of their political commentary and their irreverence about politics in general.
Kundera himself has always resisted characterizations of his work as "political," fiercely defending the role of the novelist as "neither historian nor prophet" but "an explorer of existence."
And so he is, charmingly, in his new novel, "Identity," a fervent and compelling romance, a moving little fable about the anxieties of love and separateness. Its middle-aged protagonists, Chantal and Jean-Marc, are young enough to be passionately in love and old enough to be afraid: afraid of boredom on the one hand and change on the other; afraid of being stuck in a self too familiar and therefore dull, the "tree of possibilities" reduced to a tunnel of mortality, and at the same time afraid of a love vanishing, a body changing with age, a self cast adrift.
It is the terror of identity: too determined, on the one hand, or too indeterminate, on the other. Then there is the larger world to worry about - the crowd isolating or betraying every individual, or sweeping him or her up in a conformist, leveling embrace. Not to mention the embarrassment of sharing the same mechanical bodily features of the great mass of human organisms, as if we had no individuality, nothing personal about us at all.
The self-doubt of the protagonists creates a kind of enchantment as Jean-Marc, trying to reassure his lover of her attractiveness, begins writing Chantal letters as if from a secret admirer. But his alter-ego takes on a life of his own, wreaking havoc with their convictions about one another.
There's a glorious schmaltz about this book while it turns conventional schmaltz on its head: the fantasy lover and the real one are the same and he's disillusioned, she's disappointed; instead of operatic tantrums, these coolly sophisticated characters are torn up by inner uncertainties, awkward passions and mutual misunderstandings, while they come perilously close losing themselves and each other.
Despite some too-bookish dialogue and a few blocky passages, including a disappointing cheat at the end, there are many beautiful, beautiful lines. It's unfortunate, really, that the title of the book and its cover are so abstract and chilly, as if to reinforce Kundera's reputation as an "existential" or "philosophical" writer, because though there is plenty to ponder in this slim volume, it is not in the least intimidating.
Perhaps it is appropriate to a book called "Identity" to say it can't be told by its cover. In my mind, I've given it a different one: the title, "The Unknown Lover"; the image, one of those mistily sexy photographs full of ambiguity. Like the other ones, but distinct, as a work of art should be.
Alane Salierno Mason is an editor at W.W. Norton & Company and an occasional contributor to Commonweal.
Pub Date: 5/10/98