By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
The Festival of Insignificance: A Novel by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher; Harper (128 pages, $23.99)
There’s not much to Milan Kundera’s 10th novel, The Festival of Insignificance — his first work of fiction since 2000’s Ignorance — but then that’s part of the point. Revolving around five middle-aged friends living in Paris, it offers not a narrative so much as a collection of vignettes, or reflections: the novel as a set of asides.
“Time moves on,” one of Kundera’s characters tells us. “Because of time, first we’re alive — which is to say: indicted and convicted. Then we die, and for a few more years we live on in the people who knew us, but very soon there’s another change; the dead become the old dead, no one remembers them any longer and they vanish into the void; only a few of them, very, very rare ones, leave their names behind in people’s memories, but, lacking any authentic witnesses now, any actual recollection, they become marionettes.”
This, of course — the issue of meaning in the face of human vanity — has long been at the center of Kundera’s work. His first novel, The Joke, published in Czechoslovakia in 1967, describes in part the fallout from a satirical postcard (“OPTIMISM IS THE OPIUM OF THE PEOPLE!” it declares. “THE HEALTHY ATMOSPHERE STINKS! LONG LIVE TROTSKY!”) sent by a Czech student to a young woman he wishes to seduce: humor that cannot be read as humor, in other words.
A similar theme motivates The Festival of Insignificance, which also traffics in jokes, or more accurately, in our inability to respond to jokes anymore. “We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world nor reshape it, nor hold off its dangerous headlong rush,” a character named Ramon explains at a Paris cocktail party. “There’s only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. But I think our jokes have lost their power.”
Ramon is talking to a friend named Caliban, after the Shakespeare character; Caliban likes to pretend he is Pakistani, speaking an invented language of nonsense syllables. And yet this only makes Kundera’s case, for what once might have been a surrealist put-on, a bit of personal performance art, now comes loaded with risk.
“If some servant to truth should discover that you’re French!” Ramon continues. “Then of course you’ll be suspect! He’ll think you must have some shady reason to be hiding your identity! He’ll alert the police! You’ll be interrogated! You’ll explain that your Pakistani character was a joke. They’ll laugh at you: What a stupid alibi! You must certainly have been up to no good! They’ll put you in handcuffs!” Joking, he concludes, “has become dangerous. … It really was the start of a new era. The twilight of joking! The post-joke age!”
That Kundera has his tongue half in his cheek is part of the charm: Look at all those breathless exclamation marks. At the same time, he is completely serious, as he has always been, about the folly of our machinations, political or otherwise.
It’s tempting to regard Kundera as apolitical, despite his long Parisian exile. (He abandoned Czechoslovakia for France in 1975.) But that’s an oversimplification, for in works such as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he pioneered a sensibility framed around larger notions of liberation and freedom, using sexual politics as a metaphor for affairs of state.
“What seemed to be political fanaticism,” he writes in the former novel, “was only an excuse, a parable, a manifesto of fidelity, a coded plaint of unrequited love.” It’s a brilliant move, not only for its sheer subversive power — critiquing a government in terms it does not recognize — but also for its understanding of desire as essential, equally, to politics and ardor.
In The Festival of Insignificance, Kundera extrapolates such a sensibility to our terror-besotted world. This is not to say the new book offers commentary, exactly; that would be far too great a weight for this thin and intentionally inconsequential novel to bear. “Only from the heights of an infinite good mood,” the author writes in these pages, quoting Hegel, “can you observe below you the eternal stupidity of me, and laugh over it.” That has been his purpose, or one of them, all along.
In that sense, The Festival of Insignificance offers both a continuation of Kundera’s signature investigations and a reaction to the toxicity of the present day. It’s not a brilliant book; Kundera, 86, hasn’t written a brilliant book since 1986’s The Art of the Novel, which traces an alternative tradition of fiction, what we might call the anti-novel, with roots in the work of Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot.
“I often hear it said that the novel has exhausted all its possibilities,” Kundera asserted in 1985. “I have the opposite impression: during its 400-year history, the novel has missed many of its possibilities; it has left many great opportunities unexplored, many paths forgotten, calls unheard.”
This is the territory from which The Festival of Insignificance operates, which means the most useful way to read it may be as an epilogue. It is slight, incidental, a book in which little happens: a cocktail party, some unrequited longing, a bit of humor. Still, it is compelling in its small way.
Among the novel’s running motifs is a story Joseph Stalin used to tell about his prowess as a hunter, recast here as (yes) a joke. The joke, however, is on Stalin, since he is now among “the old dead,” a point Kundera makes explicit by imagining him transplanted to contemporary Paris, where he goes unrecognized. Marionettes again, another motif of the novel, a reminder of how little everything counts. Or, as Ramon suggests in the closing pages: “Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence.”
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