The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera

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Reviewed by Simon

Kundera’s latest – and, so it seems in discussion of the novel, potentially last – novel was published last year in French, and has now been translated by Linda Asher. Kundera is an extremely famous writer, of course, and even gets a mention in the hit sitcom Friends at one point (well, The Unbearable Lightness of Being does; it’s where I first heard of Kundera). You would imagine that his first novel in over a decade would have been greeted with joy by all. But… it’s fair to say that the reviews have been mixed (which is a nice way of saying that many have been fairly negative), but I would argue that Kundera’s reputation works both for and against him. No, this is not his greatest work – but, in relatively few pages, it encapsulates everything that one associates with Kundera. It couldn’t be mistaken for the work of anybody else, and that is itself a strong achievement.

As with most of Kundera’s work, the plot is both difficult to describe and fairly irrelevant. Friends walk in a park; one lies that he has cancer. At a party, a Frenchman pretends to be Pakistani by speaking a made-up language. Stalin (yes, that Stalin) pops up to chat with a stupid comrade. None of these events are considered as significant as the musings on the attractiveness of a woman’s navel.

But ‘significant’ is hardly the word; as the title proclaims, this is a festival of insignificance. The focus on insignificance is explained, in the novel, as a way of impressing women – as being, apparently, more likely to make her feel… well, I’ll let one of Kundera’s characters explain (and, in this novel, all his characters are more or less identical creatures, made of stubbornness and lust and intellect):

“More than useless. It’s harmful. When a brilliant fellow tries to seduce a woman, she has the sense she’s entering a kind of competition. She feels obliged to shine too, to not give herself over without some resistance. Whereas insignificance sets her free. Spares her the need for vigilance. Requires no presence of mind. Makes her incautious, and thus more easily accessible”.

Kundera has often written about lust and desire, and his digressions on the navel remind one of the way in which he discussed the wave of an arm in the opening of Immortality. In The Festival of Insignificance, though, he has lost some of his subtlety; the chain of events following one another sometimes feel forced, and the men’s thoughts on desire – slipping into the narrator’s – are occasionally both dated and faintly embarrassing. How else to respond to a sentence like ‘The motion of her behind was both a greeting and an invitation’?

But, this being said, the book seems almost self-consciously a summation of Kundera’s career. The historical figures who crop up, the gestures, the broken and unlikely relationships between people, and the gentle lyricism of his plain prose (rendered beautifully by Asher, who has been translating Kundera’s books for nearly 30 years). In relation to Stalin, one character says his joke wasn’t recognised “Because nobody around him any longer knew what a joke is. And in my view, that’s the beginning of a whole new period of history.” Am I reading too much into this sentence to think that it is a reference to Kundera’s very first novel, The Joke? The catalyst for the narrative there is a joke that wasn’t understood and it, of course, kicked off a new period of literary history, in the form of Kundera’s career…

The Festival of Insignificance has been accused, in its more negative reviews, as being banal. I think Kundera himself would find that difficult to deny – but, more to the point, I’m not sure he would want to. His hallmark has long been finding the profound in the banal, and the banal in the profound. If he does it here in fewer pages than usual, with a little less pizzazz and a lot less description and abstraction, then that is perhaps a sign of closing a career with an all-encompassing coda, rather than falling off the rails. Those who have read nothing by Kundera before may find ideas undeveloped and ambitious quirks not quite completed; to those who’ve read even one of his other novels, this will feel like the dignified summation and conclusion of a great career.

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Milan Kundera, The Festival of Insignificance (tr. Linda Asher) (Faber & Faber: London, 2015), 978-0571316465, 115pp., hardback.

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