23 August 2006

Identity, by Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera has a real gift for simple, beautiful observations about human nature. It's the brilliance of his books - the brief moments of eloquence, where he hits on something about how people work that really strikes home. My problem with this novel, however, is that all the stuff that connects those moments annoys the hell out of me. The storyline is haphazard and the characters are irritating. The narrative, which ought to be the meat of the novel, is crap.

The novel (or novella, perhaps, given how short it is) follows two lovers, Jean-Marc and Chantal, but the plot is basically an excuse to reflect upon love and relationships, aging, deceit, and, of course, identity. At first you think it's telling a story, then it sort of wanders around, and ultimately concludes with a totally obnoxious, sollipsistic, pretentious ending that basically ruins the whole book. Seriously, it's awful. I don't really want to give it away, but I'll give a hint - think of the most annoying, preposterous, cliche solution to a novel that you can. Yeah. That's it.

Oddly enough, the observations about love and relationships ring true, despite the fact that both Jean-Marc and Chantal are self-absorbed, pretentious twits. And the reflections about their relationship are somehow worthwhile, even though their problems are silly, and largely based upon misunderstandings or miscommunications. Maybe it's my own bias, but I have zero patience, or sympathy, for couples whose problems, it seems to me, stem from casual deceit bred from sins of omission. In any case, as I said, some of the sound-bytes that use their case to make more general claims are nonetheless compelling, which makes one fear that perhaps human nature is that shallow and stupid. It's not even the idiocy I mind, so much as the utter lack of grace, the melodramatic egocentricity.

The reflections on identity, which I suppose ought to be the entire point, are unfortunately sullied by their context, and ultimately seem rather vapid. Or maybe it's just that I'm bored with the topic. Or at very least, bored by seeing the same issues appear over and over.

Perhaps the best one can say about Identity is that it's very short. You can easily burn through it in 90 minutes or so, and it's not an entirely unrewarding task. But really, there are better books out there. Better Kundera books, even.

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