Book review: Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignifiance is a strange sort of a return

The first novel for 14 years from the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being could very well be his last but flashes of the old magic remain.

In the opening pages, we meet the ‘heroes’ of Milan Kundera’s novel. One of them, Ramon, wanders Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, above, observing statues of poets and painters. Photo Ken Wiedemann
Powered by automated translation

The Festival of Insignificance, Milan Kundera's first novel in 14 years, is a curious kind of comeback. At just over 100 pages it resembles more a novella than a novel, and as such feels like a very distant cousin to his capacious and inventive masterpieces The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984).

With the author now in his mid-80s, should we take the book to be a late creative flowering or a career-end sign-off? It may be hard to categorise, and it may seem like a scaled-down version of a past glory, but what remains clear throughout is that it is the singular work of Milan Kundera.

In the first pages we meet the book’s all-male “heroes”’ (Kundera’s word). Alain walks down a Paris street and is captivated by the sight of young girls’ exposed navels. Ramon wanders through the Luxembourg Gardens observing statues of poets and painters. D’Ardelo visits his doctor and learns he doesn’t have cancer after all.

In typical Kundera fashion, his characters, now introduced, are allowed to interact. D’Ardelo encounters Ramon, announces that he is having a birthday party – and then, inexplicably, tells him he has terminal cancer. The party goes ahead and becomes “a celebration for birth and death at once”.

The guests arrive in foul moods and agree that the party is dreary, but all endure it, and their lives, by indulging in enlightening and provocative banter and immersive and transformative daydreaming.

Kundera opens his customary box of tricks. Over seven fleeting chapters we meet womanisers and philosophers who hold forth on the art of seduction, Kant and Hegel, the practicalities of lying and apologising, plus such portentous matters as the illusion of individuality, the uselessness of brilliance and the value of insignificance.

As ever, there are snippets of history (including a speaking role for Stalin, “the Lucifer of the century”), symbols with meaning (smashed bottles, falling angels, floating feathers), a series of ruminations in lieu of a plot, a jagged non-linear narrative, and an intruding first-person voice which may or may not belong to Kundera.

Like his last three novels, this one was written not in Czech but French and is ably translated by Linda Asher. What is different this time around, apart from the novel’s brevity, is its tone. Even with the darkest of subject matter, Kundera has always been a comical writer. Here his characters talk about resisting the world by not taking it seriously.

The problem is they feel their jokes have lost their potency. “It really was the start of a new era. The twilight of joking! The post-joke age!”

If this novel is Kundera's swan song – and like Shakespeare's late play The Tempest, there is a character called Caliban – then we would appear to have ended up at the opposite extreme from his satirical 1967 debut, The Joke.

As is the case with many an ageing author's last works, The Festival of Insignificance is preoccupied with dying. A woman attempting suicide kills the man who tries to save her. D'Ardelo feels marked by "the pathos of death" even after the doctor has given him the all-clear.

There are moments when we wonder if it isn’t only Alain who is guilty of navel-gazing but his creator too. Some rambling meditations need cropping. Elsewhere it occasionally feels as if Kundera’s working space is too cramped for his ideas to develop or his fantastic threads to unspool.

This short, sleek book isn’t classic Kundera by any means. However, there are more than enough flares of the old magic that allow us to see reality in a refreshingly new way.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.