Books

Milan Kundera
The Festival of Insignificance

It’s been 13 years since Milan Kundera’s Ignorance investigated memory, nostalgia and layers of personal philosophy. Dislocation, both physical and emotional, is at the heart of this and other novels, and The Festival of Insignificance, at only 115 pages, works as a lyrical, intense overview of these themes.

Since 1984’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera’s novels have maintained a focus on philosophical investigation, and while his sharp political gaze might have softened, he trains a steely eye on the Soviet era, and the results are often simultaneously very funny and bleak.

This novella revolves and sidesteps around five friends – Ramon, Charles, D’Ardelo, Alain and Caliban. These men interact within overheard personal ruminations, in public parks and parties, and when alone. The Cold War works as fragmented black-and-white footage with a soundtrack of laughter and despair. As with Charles Simić’s book of prose-poems The World Doesn’t End – in which, as the book jacket states, “You never know what Charles Simić is up to until you reach the end of the line or paragraph. Waiting for you might be a kiss. Or a bludgeon. Or a smile at the absurdities of society or a wistful, grim memory of World War II” – The Festival of Insignificance is an unpredictable, uneven series of vignettes and cameos that works as a commentary on despair, sex, death and black humour.

The book is divided into seven sections, each broken into glimpses of the men interacting with each other or the wider world. Mostly, these fast-paced episodes are entertaining and thought provoking, but there is also a confused, muddy element to them that interrupts narrative flow and tends to negate predictive reading. In some contexts, especially where a writer is attempting to lay traps inside convention, this would be fine, but here it becomes cloying. The narrator, a marionette-master, controls the strings and interactions. 

At the troubled heart of this slim book is the tall shadow of Stalin. He is there as splinters of memory, of anecdote, and appears as both fool and demon. Kundera is clearly having fun, but there is an abiding sense that the writer is working hard to purge himself of long-held, unresolved conflicts. As Stalin is being set up in a series of dark jokes and reflections, he is also there as a pointer to the inevitability of death and the ultimate uselessness of existence.  DL

Faber, 115pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2015 as "Milan Kundera, The Festival of Insignificance". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: DL