Milan Kundera's first novel in 14 years a witty play on insignificance
Czech author engages in some navel-gazing in his 10th novel, whose middle-aged Parisian characters are preoccupied with sex, art, fiction, death and politics
Milan Kundera is surely a contender for the title, both unwanted and wanted, of the greatest living writer yet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. That Kundera is one of the world's leading authors can be gauged by reading the admiring comments of peers such as Philip Roth and those he influenced, including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Carlos Fuentes and John Updike.
Born in the former Czechoslovakia in 1929, Kundera's career spans half a century. It began with a masterpiece, The Joke (1967), in which a sexed-up young communist named Ludvik Jahn falls foul of the authorities courtesy of an off-hand joke scrawled carelessly on a postcard to a girl he fancies: "Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!"
These themes - politics, comedy, defiance, sex - define the great works of Kundera's middle period, most famously in 1984's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Set between the Prague Spring and Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Kundera turns the erotic and political lives of Tomas, a surgeon, his long-suffering wife, Tereza, and his hat-wearing lover, Sabina, into a meditation on importance and lightness - the fleeting speed of existence at once weighty and light as air.
The other fine books of this period, Life is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Laughable Loves, follow similar trajectories, exploring surrealism, humour and revolution rebellion all with heavy doses of the erotic. What marked Kundera out was the idiosyncrasy of his form which combined linear narrative, the essay, the comic philosophising of Laurence Sterne, Miguel Cervantes and Denis Diderot.
The 20th century ended with a series of novels whose one-word titles (Immortality, Slowness, Identity, Ignorance) brought to mind Roth's "final" fiction, at once slender and heavyweight: Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, Nemesis.
Come the new millennium and, well, nothing, until now. The Festival of Insignificance is Kundera's 10th novel and his first in 14 years. Clocking in at 116 pages, it suggests he has been writing at the rate of about eight pages a year. Then again, this slightness may be important - one of countless authorial jokes about just what insignificance entails.
Our "heroes" - Alain, Ramon, D'Ardelo, Charles and Caliban - are introduced in short order. Each is male, in middle-to-late age, an inhabitant of Paris, and preoccupied with sex, art, fiction, death and politics, or combinations thereof. Alain's opening gambit is to observe that every young girl promenading through the Parisian summer is showing their navel: "It was as if their seductive power no longer resided in their thighs, their buttocks, or their breasts, but in that small round hole located in the centre of the body."
Most gawpers would leave their ogling at that, but Alain/Milan is a thigh, buttocks and breast man with a high IQ: "But how to define the eroticism of a man [or an era] that sees female seductive power as centred in the middle of the body, in the navel?"
This cocktail of sex and sexism, history and philosophy is spiked by meditations on ageing, survival and death. The latter broods over a plot device in which D'Ardelo, given the all-clear from his oncologist, pretends to Ramon that he is dying of cancer. D'Ardelo, as befits a Kundera creation, starts laughing at his "senseless lie". Ramon, by contrast, is strangely moved by the "fiction" whose pointlessness becomes its very point.
If Alain voices Kundera's oedipal libido, Ramon loudly hails his raison d'écrire: smiling in the face of life's vagaries, contradictions and tragedies. Paraphrasing Hegel, he states: "Only from the heights of an infinite good mood can you observe below you the eternal stupidity of men, and laugh over it." Such apparent certainty is undercut by nagging doubts that the game has changed: "The pleasure of mystification was supposed to protect you … We've known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There's been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. But I think our jokes have lost their power."
This melancholic note of resignation resounds throughout The Festival of Insignificance, and one wonders if it explains the long wait between Kundera novels. Reading between the lines, it's hard not to hear an 85-year-old author engaging self-consciously and a little awkwardly both with society and his maturing self. But just who has changed? Kundera or the world?
Putting the case for the latter is Kalinin, a non-entity who served under Joseph Stalin. Mocked for his weak bladder and sycophancy, Kalinin's name survives through an odd twist of fate. The communist habit of naming cities after leading party members meant that Konigsberg became Kaliningrad. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, most of these re-brandings were themselves re-branded, but not Kaliningrad. Kundera has enormous fun wondering why such an insignificant figure has outlasted Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky.
Kundera puts in a meta-fictive appearance as a slightly doddery, repetitive narrator who seems uncertain of his own place in the world: "His nonconformist remarks, which had used to keep him young, now despite his misleading appearance made him an uncontemporary character, a person not of our time, and thus old."
It seems strange and even a tad disingenuous to hear someone of Kundera's towering reputation fretting about his place in the world. But his good-humoured modesty, at least as ventriloquised by the genial Ramon, will not allow him to rest on his laurels. Promenading through the Luxembourg Gardens, Ramon smiles as tourists stroll indifferently past statues of artistic greats such as "Balzac, Berlioz, Hugo, Dumas". Is Kundera the next to be ignored, in a couple of centuries give or take?
Ramon believes such neglect is liberating, and Kundera sounds similarly freed by his status as a writer out of step with his time. There are harsh truths to be hammered home: "Of all the people you see, no one is here by his own wish. Of course, what I just said is the most banal truth there is. So banal, and so basic, that we've stopped seeing it and hearing it."
Such pessimism, voiced by Alain in imaginative communion with his dead mother, proves too bleak for Ramon. He and D'Ardelo may end up trapped in a mutually spun web of fictions and lies, but Ramon accepts this insubstantiality as inherent to the human comedy. The key to survival is accepting our own insignificance: "It is not only a matter of acknowledging it, we must love insignificance, we must learn to love it … in all its obviousness, all its innocence, in all its beauty."
The Festival of Insignificance is a curious and fascinating book. Its confirmed outsider status leads to uncomfortable moments. For example, the baffling, but one assumes supposedly comic device of the French waiter impersonating a Pakistani. Nor was I convinced about Ramon's admiration of Quaquelique, a womaniser whose mediocrity is his greatest romantic asset. Quaquelique is so forgettable his latest lover can't remember sleeping with him. As he walks out on a mystified Julia, the scene takes on the creepy feel of a drug-fuelled date rape rather than a celebration of the generous underdog.
In another sense, blink-and-you-miss-them bit-part characters such as Quaquelique and Kalinin prove the perfect vehicles for Kundera's blink-and-you-miss-it bit-part novel which insinuates itself, flaws and all. The vivacity of Kundera's prose (translated by Linda Asher), the whirl of his ideas, and his sincere engagement with grand narratives and troubling questions remind you what a rare talent he is. Navel-gazing has never been more provocative.
The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera (Harper)