August 2015


‘The Festival of Insignificance’ by Milan Kundera

By Stephanie Bishop
‘The Festival of Insignificance’ by Milan Kundera
Trans. Linda Asher; Faber & Faber; $24.99

In Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality (1991), the narrator sets out a key challenge facing any novelist. A character, he argues, must be “a unique, inimitable being”, but this is difficult, given that there are more individuals than gestures, and so characters, like people, are bound to repeat the gestures of one another. In Immortality, the writer-narrator is charmed by the way a woman waves farewell. In his mind, he names this woman Agnes and she takes up residence as a character in a novel he is writing. He bequeaths Agnes this gesture of farewell, but worries that the reproduction of this gesture reduces its force as a marker of individuality. Long may live the mannerism, but at Kundera’s peril, with characters potentially reduced to mimics.

The Festival of Insignificance, the 86-year-old Czech-born author’s first novel since Ignorance (2000), perhaps justifies these fears. We find four ageing male friends – Alain, Charles, Ramon and Caliban – in various scenarios: walking through Paris, meeting at one another’s houses, planning a marionette play and enjoying a cocktail party.

The book opens with Alain as he wanders the streets, ogling young women whose navels are exposed by the fashion for cropped T-shirts. Elsewhere in Paris, Ramon is on his way to see a Chagall exhibition and bumps into a former colleague, who lies about having cancer and then waves farewell in the charming manner that originally belonged to Agnes in Immortality.

There is much in this book that seems to weakly imitate the great elements of Kundera’s earlier novels. His signature aesthetic remains: the playfulness, the recourse to dreamscapes, the philosophical flights of mind and the meditations on time. In Kundera’s best works these elements magically come together to provide moving and robust critiques of contemporary existence. But the characters in The Festival of Insignificance are, on the whole, too distracted by lust and disappointment to sustain the meaningful inquiry so celebrated in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Broken down into a series of episodes, the book doesn’t tell a story so much as jump in and out of conversations. Key among the topics are women, the men’s hunger for women and how best to score.

Kundera has long walked a tightrope when it comes to objectifying women. Here he goes further. Women’s bodies are reduced to four “golden sites”: the breasts, the buttocks, the thighs and the navel. These sites are said to express “a woman’s individuality”, although in this book female individuals rarely appear. When trying to seduce a woman, Ramon advises, it is best not to be brilliant, lest the woman feel pressured to seem intelligent too. Play dumb, he claims, then the woman “requires no presence of mind”. Perhaps a better title would have been ‘The Festival of Insignificants’.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Her latest novel is The Anniversary.

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