Saturday, 22 March 2008

Milan Kundera's Identity is, like other novels by the same author, a little gem full of wisdom (and the kind of wisdom that seems to have practical application in the mode of the every-day).

One beautiful piece of novelistic exegesis is in Jean-Marc's description of what friendship means, nowadays. It is, he says, purely for the purpose of what he calls "polishing the mirror". A friend can no longer do much for us, but what they can do is bear witness (he doesn't use this slightly hackneyed phrase) to our past. They are necessary "for the proper function of our memories".

The old type of friendship (which Jean-Marc says he has always wanted above anything else) is the kind shared by Dumas' three musketeers. In the modern world, you are more likely to get help from "someone anonymous, invisible, a social-service outfit, a consumer watchdog organisation, a law firm".

For Jean-Marc, "friendship was proof of the existence of something stronger than ideology, than religion, than the nation". The mistake Jean-Marc makes is to infuse his romantic attachment to Chantal, with friendship.

It almost destroys the relationship. Or perhaps it does. It's impossible to know, in this novel, where the individual's identity is always being filtered through the lens of someone else's. In the intertwining of their distinct personal narratives (the thing that proves you exist, because it makes sense only to you) the people in the book generate a lot of light.

And some heat. But Kundera, who has made romantic philosophy his trademark, is accustomed to handling the little brush fires that erupt when things don't go as planned. In this way, a book by Kundera seems, ineluctably, to resemble life.

And this is why we still read him, despite the fact that he's been around for as long as anyone under the age of sixty can remember. Kundera is one of the great 'stayers' of modernism. A beacon always shinging bright. A shield against the impoverishing imperatives of consumer culture, where the thing that was popular yesterday is popular tomorrow (due to the corrosive effects of retro-culture).

I particularly liked the scene in this novel that takes place in the Eurostar - the underground train linking France with its ancient nemesis, England. It's the last scene that makes much sense. After this, it's into the realms of Le Grand Meaulnes (a book I seem to keep coming back to in my mind, despite the fact that I've not read it since high school).

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