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Czech Mate

IDENTITY: A Novel.\o7 By Milan Kundera\f7 . \o7 Translated from the French by Linda Asher (HarperCollins: 168 pp., $22)\f7 ; FAREWELL WALTZ: A Novel. \o7 By Milan Kundera\f7 .\o7 Translated from the French by Aaron Asher (HarperCollins: 278 pp., $12.50)\f7

June 28, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | Susan Salter Reynolds is an assistant editor of Book Review

Reading Kundera is a Bergman-esque chess game between writer and reader. The only way to win is to not read him. Short of that, you must, at the very least, become a worthy opponent. You must go back and read just about everything he's ever written, so that when you approach a novel with the sly title "Identity" (only the second Kundera has written in his adopted language, French), you know bloody well he's going to try to strip you of yours.

Let him have it; let it go. You can't save the pawns or the queen's reputation, but you can watch his every move and, by watching, become the kind of reader who challenges him and lives up to him. Why? Because in the bargain, you get to consider your place in culture and history; you get to question the ideas and assumptions that helped fashion your precious identity.

Kundera brings an unusual depth to fiction. He is a writer who deepens life itself by refining the quality of our attention; each gesture, each indiscretion is dissected in his novels. He has been called a misogynist, in part because his male characters are so often pathological cheaters and liars. He has been called a two-faced Eastern European: once a Communist, then a denouncer of communism. He has been called a genius. His books have been banned and unbanned in his home country, Czechoslovakia, where he has not lived since 1975. He is a force in literature.

These two novels, written 29 years apart ("Farewell Waltz" was written in Bohemia in 1969, "Identity" in 1998), exemplify two of the qualities that have made reading Kundera, 69, so rich through the decades. One is the sometimes suffocating intimacy he achieves with his readers. "Identity," the story of a Parisian woman whose lover sends her anonymous love letters to test her fidelity, is very much about that intimacy. The other related quality is Kundera's uncanny ability to anticipate the reader's response to his characters: He has assessed our ability to be surprised, to be flexible, to change our minds about a character. "Farewell Waltz" is a novel that sorely tests that flexibility. Through his characters, in these and all of his novels, Kundera manipulates the reader more cleverly than any other living writer. This can be irksome.

Long and hard, we readers have struggled for our independence, for choice in art. We can change channels and beach-read and sift through information online. We more often than not read several books at once. "How receptive she's been to images someone sows in her head!" says Kundera of his character, Chantal, in "Identity," with barely concealed sympathy and disdain. He is making fun of her lack of independence, of her inability to maintain her focus and create her own ideas. She has been liberated only to become stupid.

And so it is a shocking experience when Kundera grabs you, the liberated reader, by the hair, and you obey him. (We readers, male and female, thought we were anonymous.) It is shocking when he anticipates your reactions to the turns in his plot. To have one's mind read as one reads is an invasion of privacy. It is not a pleasant experience. No one really wants the writer there in the room while one reads his work.

When, in "Identity," Chantal receives letters from a secret admirer who is, of course, actually her lover, Jean-Marc, she begins to live her life as though she were being watched. "Usually, in the bus, she would ignore everyone else. This time, though, because of that letter, she believed herself watched, and she watched too."

When you read "Identity," you feel as though you are being watched. It may not be fun, but at least we, like Chantal, wake up. We become alert to the possibility of metaphors, of other worlds, of levels of perception. Isn't this why we read? Or do we readsimply to relax?

Then there are the practical reasons for reading a novel like "Identity," in which Chantal struggles to decide whether to stay with Jean-Marc. He loves her, he is steady. Her child has died, and she is lonely. He seems safe. Your partner seems safe. A writer like Kundera can make you forget that it is fiction you're reading. You transform the novel into a testing ground for your own decision-making. Will you end up lonely and trapped in a corruption you mistook for freedom, like Chantal, if you leave? You stay because Kundera has frightened you. You might not admit it, it may seem childish, but tell me, reader, that it does not often happen this way.

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