Review: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Festival of Insignificance’ Is Full of Pranks, Lies and Vanity
In his groundbreaking novels “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” (1980) and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1984), the Czech-born Milan Kundera wrote about his country under the shadow of the Soviet Union, reinventing the form of the novel while examining the osmosis between the personal and the political there, and the subversive roles that humor and irreverence can play in a totalitarian state
During that time, he recalled in a 1980 interview, a sense of humor was a sign that a person could be trusted. He added, however, that laughter came in different forms: the laughter of genuine joy versus the laughter of “angel-fanatics,” who are so certain of their own worldview that they are “ready to hang anyone not sharing their joy”; the laughter that recognizes the Kafkaesque absurdities of life (particularly in an authoritarian regime) versus the sort of nihilistic laughter “which proclaims that everything has become meaningless.”
In “The Festival of Insignificance,” his flimsy new novella about a group of friends in Paris, Mr. Kundera — who has been living in France, “his second homeland,” since 1975 — returns to many of these same themes. But instead of a profound meditation on political and psychological freedom, he has produced an extremely slight musing on people’s proclivities for pranks, lies and perverse choices — like a waiter pretending to be from Pakistan and babbling in his own made-up language; a man pretending to have cancer when he is perfectly healthy (in a section titled “The Secret Charm of a Grave Illness”); and women taking up with a boring man precisely because he is boring and makes such banal conversation.Photo
In fact, this novella (which was written in French) not only takes place in Paris but also reflects a Parisian salonlike fascination with tongue-in-cheek amusements and poses — as opposed to the Central European outlook evinced by the author’s early books. Those works were concerned not with the intellectual games of jaded Western sophisticates but with the struggles of a small country and ordinary people to hold onto a sense of independence in the face of tyranny.
Jokes in Mr. Kundera’s early books signified an unwillingness to cave to officialdom and ideological certainty. Jokes in “Festival” are not about defiance, and they’re not about an innocent joy in the magic of play. Rather, they fall into the category of nihilistic hoaxes or the tired efforts of would-be artists to amuse themselves.
“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,” says one character to the pretend-Pakistani waiter. “There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. But I think our jokes have lost their power. You force yourself to speak Pakistani to cheer yourself up. In vain. All you get out of it is weariness and boredom.”
There are occasional strained efforts to inject “The Festival of Insignificance” with some significance. There is a story Stalin reportedly told about seeing 24 partridges in a tree, using the 12 rounds he had in his gun to shoot half of them, then going back home, many kilometers away, to fetch 12 more rounds and finding the remaining birds still in the tree waiting to be killed — an anecdote recounted in actual biographies of that Soviet dictator.
There are Pirandello-like asides by the narrator, who may or may not be a stand-in for Mr. Kundera. And there are some unconvincing accounts about two characters’ relationships with their mothers, which seem meant to recall the relationship between the narrator and his mother in Camus’s novel “The Stranger.”
None of these references lift this book or imbue it with added meaning. Just as one character’s penchant for navel gazing — surveying the midsections of young women walking the Paris streets and parks, while making portentous philosophical remarks — reads like a coy, obvious joke about narcissism, so does this novella’s title, “The Festival of Insignificance,” read like a knowing, pre-emptive joke about its own superficiality.
THE FESTIVAL OF INSIGNIFICANCE
By Milan Kundera
Translated by Linda Asher.
115 pages. Harper/HarperCollins. $23.99.