When I make this sign you'll wake up


(This review appeared in the ReadReverb newsletter, Jan 6, 2006, and on the ReadReverb website)

A woman idly throws out a gesture as the author watches her in a swimming pool. The immortal gesture runs through her like a brief shock of current, making its own journey from the past to the future, and the realisation leads Kundera, sat on the poolside, to fabricate the lady's life, and the lives of her closest relatives and friends, around the movement. Kundera suddenly finds himself caught up his own story's intricacies, talking to its characters and orchestrating silly, capricious dialogues between dead Goethe and dead Hemingway, all the time attempting to grasp the unperishable essence that permeates the decay of his characters.

This is a novel which quietly, without the fuss of avant-gardeism, takes apart the standard novel form: for example, it ends with an extended chapter which shares almost no plot with the rest of the book, preceded by the author acknowledging this very fact to one of his creations. And the core of Immortality is a set of short, disjointed vignettes starring the gesturing Agnes and her sister Laura, whose differences and similarities generate much of the book's content.

Indeed, this casual playing fast and loose with the medium's mores is both the the book's strength and its weakness: no other form could probably have suited the content, but it makes it, oddly, simultaneously a difficult but frivolous read. The reader has finally got a grip on the purpose and meanings behind this slippery, complex story when it shifts scene and atmosphere, and it's asking a lot for him to keep up with Kundera's own vision.

Kundera is considered to be a proponent of magical realism, but Immortality's blurred boundaries are a relatively tame example of the genre. Nonetheless, the ease with which he can slip into his own story, and become emotionally entangled with its characters, illuminates the breadth of his talents. Kundera is fiction's Oliver Sacks, performing the same sort of fluid motions from the specific to the general: whereas Sacks starts from severe trauma seen in a clinical light, Kundera's examples are banal quotidians, whose oddity arises from the angle at which he chooses to look at them.