Czech Mate

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.

Kundera may be a writer who is going to help you make decisions, not one who will help you avoid them, but he is not to be trusted. This is why we play chess with him and why he usually wins. Reading Aaron Asher's new translation of "Farewell Waltz" (so-called because Kundera believed for political reasons that the novel, written in Bohemia and published six years later in France, would be his last work of fiction) reminds us that Kundera's characters lack what we in this country call a "moral compass." Because art and morality are always wary of each other, a moral compass is probably the last piece of technology that Kundera would choose to install in his characters, who are propelled by forces they cannot control. Being propelled, they have no real individual identities; they seem real, but they are only inhabiting Kundera's stage, on which it is the human condition that is important, not the humans.

In "Farewell Waltz," as in many of Kundera's other novels, there is something corrupt about the characters. Instead of a moral compass, they employ an if-then reasoning in their decision-making. Each action is preceded by a Hegelian exercise in which possible outcomes are weighed. This is very different from the kind of decision-making we prize in this country: pure, simple action based on that moral compass instilled in childhood, chiming true north throughout adulthood. In contrast, Kundera's characters' identities are always established in context--a spectrum of evil, for example, is established. A corrupt character, like Klima in "Farewell Waltz," a man whose sole obsession is to avoid responsibility for a child he believes he has created in one of his many one-night stands, is given a friend or acquaintance who is more corrupt, in this case the young guitarist who offers to run over the woman Klima is trying to coax into having an abortion.

In their roles as Immoralist, Marxist, Bureaucrat, Manipulating Female or Hopeless Romantic, Kundera's fictional characters (like those of Camus or Malraux) do not possess the dimensionality that some writers strive for, the independence from their creator. They are tied to the mad scientist, Kundera; his qualities are dispersed among them. In contrast, there is a deep vein in American literature (of which Faulkner is perhaps the best miner) of individuality. We can never really know each other, and we really would prefer not to be known. Being known implies similarity, predictability. Being understood transgresses individuality.

And yet these characters are not predictable. Their lives take unexpected, sometimes surreal turns. Running away from Jean-Marc, Chantal finds herself in a London house at an orgy of Marxists she cannot escape. She has, in this dream sequence, no identity whatsoever. Klima, the great manipulator, watches events spin out of his control, ending in a death he is only partially responsible for. You could not have guessed, at any point, how these novels would end.

There is no question that, at its best, reading requires a kind of attention, demands a slowing of the pace of physical life (you are still; you read). Because of this, the writer can have a greater influence over your life than things requiring less attention. In this age, we know better than ever before that a commitment of time and thought and attention requires a surrender of the trappings of identity. Kundera knows this, too, as an author and as a European. He has a way of writing stillness--his characters move as if through soup, using gestures and thoughts far more than words. In that stillness, so far from daily life, you begin to question everything. You look down on your life as though from a great height.

Perspective is one thing, but there is also a level of dispassion in European urban intellectual culture that is alien to many Americans. Young writers here are taught to use detail, detail, detail. I would argue that in general, fiction is not drowning in Europe, the way it seems to be here, because more authors in Europe bypass the details of the hero or heroine's daily life to address the human condition. Their books will withstand the wave of history, while books by Douglas Coupland and Anne Tyler will not.

If fiction in this country is becoming obsolete, as so many critics claim, it is because it fails to give us this perspective on our own lives and the times we live in. In colluding with the cult of individuality, it does not test our received ideas about morality, it does not test the plot, the arc of life (childhood, education, job, marriage, mortgage, children, childhood, education etc.). Our taste in things makes us different, not our thoughts and fears.

A writer should be good enough, like Kundera, to strip you of your identity and give you new ones to try on.

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