Although Milan Kundera's work, Identity, was a New York Times notable book, critics internationally have accused him of breaking a so-called reader-writer contract in which the completion of plot is meant to finish the presentation of character. This type of criticism does not befit a renowned writer who convinced the world years ago that the duty of a novelist, at least in his own case, was to teach readers to comprehend life as a question rather than as an answer and to understand fiction as an idea rather than a story. In his heyday people enjoyed the challenge of wading through his lengthy digressions on the evolution of the meaning of words, the way he interrupts his narrative time and time again to return to the discussion of certain themes such as "lightness" and "heaviness" in his most famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
But just as heaviness, "which pins us to the ground but is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment," is often a gift, so too is the weight of Kundera's work, even in his novel, Identity. Besides the fact Identity was originally written in French as opposed to Kundera's first language, Czech in which he wrote his previous works, there is no discrepancy in talent between this book and his earlier, more popular, one. Critics, however, are asking such questions as "has 'being' grown so unbearably light that Kundera can't even write about it anymore." My answer is "No." In Identity, Kundera courageously invites his readers to weigh the notion of human identity and what it means both in a community and in one-on-one romantic relationship. This novel portrays one couple-Chantal, who has recently divorced her husband after the death of her five year-old child, and Jean-Marc. The story, or better yet, Kundera's quandary about identity begins at a hotel where the two lovers are vacationing. Half-jokingly, Chantal remarks to Jean-Marc, "Men don't turn to look at me anymore," which prompts Jean-Marc to send her anonymous letters. Although the letters at first serve to inflame their lovemaking, ultimately they backfire into what Kundera calls "a shameful objectification that is a threat to all of us in the intrusive modern era," a topic that the author returns to time and time again. In essence, Jean-Marc projects an idealized identity onto Chantal and is deflated when she contradicts it. And Chantal, in turn, is deflated when she projects an oppressor's identity onto Jean-Marc, the only man who has ever tried not to oppress her.
No summary of the plot, however, can truly express the complex philosophical question that embodies each character's paradoxical actions and feelings. One day, for instance, while Chantal is eating lunch with Jean-Marc she is suddenly overcome by "a feeling of unbearable nostalgia for him." She wonders how this could happen in his presence, and decides it can "if you glimpse a future where the beloved is no more." At this moment, she thinks of her dead child and is flooded with happiness since it is his death that has made her presence at Jean-Marc's side "absolute." She does not, however, disclose these thoughts to Jean-Marc for fear that he would view her as a monster.
"What people keep secret is the most common, the most ordinary, the most prevalent thing, the same thing everybody has," insecurity, loneliness, and anxiety, Jean-Marc muses later on. Yet, as one would come to expect, Kundera's twist on this simple thought is far more profound and open-ended. We come to see that by keeping these types of feeling to ourselves we are concealing our communality, our humanity, which conversely causes us to lose our individual identity as both Chantal and Jean-Marc eventually do within their relationship.
Given Kundera's previous works, it should come as no surprise that the end of Identity asks readers to consider the possibility that none of the previously described events in Jean-Marc's and Chantal's relationship are real. This device of forcing readers to take on the responsibility of thought is not a literary cop out, as some critics would recently have us believe. It is instead Kundera's philosophy on the function of a novel coming to life as it always has in his work. Since he has never before provided definitive endings, the real cop out would've been for Kundera to answer in absolute terms all the issues raised by his characters in the narrative. "Chantal has seized dominance and backed her author into a corner. He cannot save her, yet lacks the toughness to destroy her," complains one critic in a review that obviously overlooks Kundera's entire reason for writing. In all of Kundera's work it is our job as readers to ponder a character's fate in terms of our own understanding of the human experience.
Keeping in mind Kundera's literary consistency in the last decade, the change in the attitudes of his critics is baffling. Kundera, however, in his typically insightful way has undoubtedly hit the nail on the head as to why it may have come about when he states in an interview, "People nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than to ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noise of perceived human certainties. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead." Hopefully readers will come to realize that by killing the importance of Kundera's unique idea of fiction we are doing ourselves a horrible disservice. Of course, literature that requires us to think not only of the book but also of our own lives drops a certain responsibility on the reader, but it is well worth the extra energy. After all, if we refuse to spend time considering how this modern era has affected our view of identity, how can we say so definitively that "light" literature, which asks no questions, is any more splendid than Kundera's form of "heavy" idea-based literature?