I’m having a hard time understanding why many critics had bad things to say about this novel. Kundera doesn’t break any new ground here, true; but the writing is as sharp and as witty as ever — his particular talent of bridging the gap between deadly serious and farce and satire. The title alone should clue the reader in on what they are about to read isn’t so “serious”. However, it is, in ways I think the critics of this novel have either overlooked (which isn’t likely) or they simply thought it was time to tear down a great novelist from his pedestal. (Which is more likely the case).
The Festival of Insignificance is a very very short novel, coming in at around 115 pages. It is more akin to his later period work such as Ignorance. All the Kundera trademarks are here: the humor, the seriousness of the subtext, the non-serious, playful narrative, the author interjecting himself into the novel, commenting on the characters; any fan of Kundera’s work will find nothing wrong with this latest effort. At 86, it is presumably his swan song (I hope not) and in a lot of ways this book can be looked at as the last chapter in an entire body of work, with this book coming full circle. As in his first novel The Joke, this novel also pivots around a joke — one which concerns Stalin and his inner circle — in which he tells a joke that no one understands. Afterwards, his inner circle retires to the bathroom and begin raging about the joke and about Stalin in particular, who listens outside the door, highly amused at their reaction to the joke. With this, Kundera begins to explore how the world can longer take a joke, that humor has vanished in the contemporary age. That people have forgotten how to laugh and not take things so seriously.
The main story revolves around a group of friends, all of whom are obsessed with trivial matters: Alain, who can’t stop contemplating a fashion trend in which young girls expose their navels; D’Ardelo, who after a doctor visit learns that he doesn’t have cancer, goes on to tell a friend that he does because he wanted to seem “heroic” in the face of it; Ramon, who loves the visual arts but obsesses over the long line at the museum to see a Chagall exhibit. He is also haunted by his mother, a woman who never wanted him and abandoned him at a young age (the brief interlude concerning Ramon’s mother figures heavily into the ultimate meaning of the novel); Caliban, an actor who goes to great pains to create his own language and speak it; and Charles, who works as a cocktail party organizer and dreams about a play for a marionette theater in which he never intends to actually write. D’Ardelo is planning to throw a birthday party for himself — with Charles handling the catering duties and the bulk of the action takes place at this party, where other minor characters weave in and out, contributing to the underlying meaning of the text.
The four friends talk about weighty themes: sex, death, existence, memory, identity, the usual themes that Kundera explores in his previous work. However, this time, rather than it being full of meaning and contemplation, the four talk and talk and talk about it without much seriousness, often revisiting their trivial obsessions. But underneath all this — as well as the recurring theme of Stalin and his joke — mask a very serious point the novel has under the surface: that of insignificance. The “festival” is life: over time they will be gone, no one will remember them, that no one was ever asked to be brought into the world in the first place, that history has a way of either being forgotten or rewritten, the relationship between will and power, how people are often weighed down by matters that are given so much importance but are ultimately meaningless and this doesn’t allow for one to just accept the insignificance of things in order to live a much happier life; those moments we overlook each day as we’re busy over thinking things that we ultimately can’t do anything about; the arbitrary nature of things, particularly decision making (as illustrated in the Stalin portion, where he renames a Russian city after one of his comrades because of his willingness to not interrupt while telling an overlong story so he could go to the bathroom, instead pissing in his pants).
There are moments of weight and moments of lightness and a lot is packed into these few pages, something that isn’t easy to accomplish. The themes under the surface will have the reader thinking about this book for a long time and I wonder — due to Kundera’s advanced age — if this is a rumination on his own life, looking back and finally coming to a realization about his own attitudes towards the subjects he often explored in his work.
A reader may not get the full weight of this book if they haven’t read the entire corpus of Kundera’s work (though it isn’t necessary). However, it would help, since he revisits familiar themes and seems to draw a very different conclusion than he had previously. This little book will give one food for thought. Ignore the critics and read this.