“Identity” by Milan Kundera

Warning: this review gives away the ending.

There’s something intensely dissatisfying about stories that end “but it was all a dream and then she woke up.”

Logically, I suppose there shouldn’t be. We accept that a story is made up, we accept that nothing is true, that it is all in effect a dream being dreamt onto the page by the author. But to have the characters dream for large parts of the book is beyond the pale. I felt cheated on reading it, as if I had wasted a few hours reading something that wasn’t true. Well, that’s a novel, dream or no dream.

I think saying “and it was all a dream” is a problem because it is so reminiscent of badly written trash like ‘Dallas’, where the writers get themselves into a situation they don’t want and solve it by saying that everything after the point where the story started to get lost was a dream. It seems too easy, too much of a shortcut.

That isn’t true of this novel, though. I am sure that Milan Kundera did not write himself into a dead end and think, “To hell with it, I’ll make it a dream then.” There are clear dreamlike moments from early on, for example seeing characters in odd places – a waiter from a cafe turns up in a graphologist’s office. And it’s all very well orchestrated, so that only towards the end, when Chantal goes to London and the story becomes incredibly confused and illogical, does it become clear that it’s a dream. Kundera then openly asks the reader who was dreaming and when it started.

The fact that it was a dream raises certain questions, one of which is Kundera’s – who’s dreaming? The novel is narrated from two separate points of view, the lovers Chantal and Jean-Marc, and the perspectives are quite separate, marked off by chapter breaks. So whose dream is it? Another problem is that the dream is not very dreamlike for a long time. There are hints, moments, but mostly it’s a logical story, often with some quite complex ideas being expressed, the sort that seem unlikely even for a casual conversation between lovers and even more unlikely for a dream. For example, Jean-Marc soliloquising after visiting a dying friend in hospital: “Friendship is indispensable to man for the proper function of his memory. Remembering our past, carrying it around with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining, as they say, the wholeness of the self. To ensure that the self doesn’t shrink, to see that it holds on to its volume, memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past, that is to say, with friends. They are our mirror; our memory; we ask nothing of them but that they polish the mirror from time to time so we can look at ourselves in it.” Very insightful and beautifully expressed, but it sounds like Kundera’s thoughts, not Jean-Marc’s speech and certainly not like any kind of dream.

I might read the book again, to see if the boundary between dream and reality becomes clearer. It’s quite short, more of a novella, so it wouldn’t take long. But in any case it is interesting to see how the dream resolution irritated me. I suppose that I had become interested in the characters and the situation, which was very cleverly contrived on a series of misunderstandings. Chantal was in a bad mood, and when Jean-Marc questioned her she said it was because men didn’t look at her any more, which was a thought that had occurred to her but was not really important to her – she said it more to get him off her back. He, however, took it very seriously and decided to write anonymous letters of admiration to her, to make her feel better. She hides them away, and when he sees this it makes him jealous. She, on the other hand, is furious when she discovers that he is the writer and, more, that he has found where she hides the letters. She feels invaded and spied upon, and thinks Jean-Marc has contrived the whole thing to trap her.

I found this a very interesting plot, and sympathised with the characters. I wanted to see where it went, and so to have it go nowhere at all was dissatisfying, despite a grudging admiration for the way the story had been told to keep the balance just right and the truth revealed at the right time.

The tenses of the narration shifted constantly, and I’m not sure why. The present tense seemed to be used mostly for thoughts or feelings, and the past tense for action. Perhaps this was hinting at the dream resolution. Chantal thinks early on in the book “That is why she dislikes dreams: they impose an unacceptable equivalence among the various periods of the same life, a levelling contemporaneity of everything a person has ever experienced; they discredit the present by denying it its privileged status.”
Perhaps the mixed-up tenses are part of the author’s dream. Perhaps it’s not Chantal or Jean-Marc who are dreaming at all, but Milan Kundera.

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There are 7 comments

  1. I am disappointed too with how the novel ends with the groupie thing and all. it seems confusing that it’s philosophical, realistic and ended like a piece of a pocketbook genre. He should have given them a better ending not a fairy tale or lover real one but at least a logical ending!!!

    1. Hi Alyanna

      Thanks very much for your comment – I wrote this review 5 years ago now, and always like it when someone discovers an old post.

      I think our mutual disappointment with the ending shows how good a book it was until then. The characters felt so real, and the ideas so interesting, that it felt like a bit of a letdown to hear that it was all a dream.

      I never did go back to this book, and I think I’ve sold it or given it away now – have moved several times since writing this. Reading your comment, and rereading my old review, brought the book to the front of my mind again, though, and maybe I’ll give it another go!

      1. It is quite interesting to get into a review for a book that I read long time ago, and just finished reading it for the second time, few minutes ago.

        Well, i would say I had totally forgotten the plot, so it came to me as a fresh start, but amazingly, it was just until the very end, that I finally discovered that I was dreaming about reading it in the past.

        Perhaps, and quite sure about it, I have been reading it at some point, but so carelessly that it looks like a far, and ambigous memory.

        I never thought Kundera was capable of walking on the borders of dreams. He is so vivid, so bold, that you never think his imagination can be anything, but real. But how would you take it for a person who struggles himself with real and unreal.

        It was a disappointment from readers point of view, but a real story for dreamers.

        Thanks for writing this review. All encounters were great.

  2. Hi Andrew
    I’m relieved that I’m not the only person who found the present/past tense switches unclear

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