Note to publishers. Calling something a novel does not of itself a novel make, even when it is Milan Kundera who has written the text and even when measured by the most generously elastic criteria of modernist fiction. Calling the thing The Festival of Insignificance of course pre-empts complaints about largely plotless action, personifications of pensées rather than characters, the periodically faint squeak of wit . . . The writing is self-consciously laconic; the dialogue is ostentatiously banal; and the entire airy confection all but disappears into its own vortex of terminal cuteness. Devotees of Kundera, including me, can only wring their hands.
The 100-odd pages offer little for readers to get their teeth into; rather they get a literary amuse-gueule. They do, however, include a memorable passage at a cocktail party where a recently bereaved but unconscionably merry middle-aged beauty crams a mess of bread and sausage between molars and cheek and indulges in a bout of heavy mastication while assailed by a gushing sympathiser whose unwelcome consolations leave her cold. While the beauty ignores her self-appointed commiserator, a feather bobs and hovers above the dull gathering, briefly alighting on the woman’s outstretched finger.
What is this book, then? It presents itself as an intellectual parlour game, a neo-absurdist air-kiss, a sly meditation on the mysteries of human connection and disconnection. For those who care about such things there are unspoken nods of homage to the Usual Suspects: Beckett, Joyce, Kafka, Camus, Calvino. Segments of time overlap and intrude on each other. Stalin and his prostate-challenged apparatchik Kalinin appear where they shouldn’t for no special reason. Though Godard is in the details, the nouvelle vague-ishness grates. Every so often there are self-pleasuring allusions to “the master”, aka the author, to whose snapping fingers the characters, such as they are, perform their pointless little social minuet.
Still, you don’t chuck it across the room and get on with more compelling activities like shopping for toilet tissue or picking your teeth because every so often it is punctuated by moments of actual pleasure. Even at his most attenuated and coy, Kundera is too good a writer not to scatter them here and there. Within its large-print pages lurk micro-novellas that tantalise the imagination. A character’s mother, detesting the foetus inside her, conceived despite her warnings by a husband, his face “redder and redder, red and repugnant”, attempts to drown it along with herself. Her efforts are thwarted by a well-meaning rescuer. She fights in vain “to rescue her death” and is sufficiently aggrieved at being robbed of it to drown her saviour instead. “Drenched with dirty river water”, she returns to her car and drives off. Or at least this is the story her son, who blames his mother for making him a habitual Apologiser, tells her when he summons her phantom in his imagination.
Another character, who has just been given the good news by his doctor that he does not, after all, harbour the cancer he had been fearing, decides on impulse to tell a casual friend that he is actually dying of it, simply because the lie and the effect it has on the acquaintance give him a perverse satisfaction. At the subsequent cocktail party two friends who are earning a little extra money by being waiters for the night decide to speak in a plausible-sounding but fictitious language — “Pakistani” — the meaningless utterance of which entertains them. A Portuguese waitress attracted to the gobbledygooker nicknamed “Caliban” struggles to strike up a conversation. “Their communication in two languages neither understood brought them close.” If all you ask for are such pinprick paradoxes, you’ll love The Festival of Insignificance.
The book is not without some artful weaving. On her last sighting of the unwanted son beside a swimming pool, the wayward mother touches his 10-year-old belly button. Sixty pages later, Alain’s odyssey towards understanding his obsessive fascination with navels builds into a passage of philosophical intensity. His phantom mother wakes him from a doze to observe that the primal woman Eve was navel-less, since “she was not born out of a belly but out of a whim, the Creator’s whim. It’s from her vulva, the vulva of a navel-less woman, that the first umbilical cord emerged . . . Men’s bodies were left with no continuation, completely useless, whereas from out of the sexual organ of every woman there came another cord, with another woman or man at the end of each one, and all of that, millions and millions of times over, turned into an enormous tree, a tree formed from the infinity of bodies.” The passage with its oracular power inserted into the clink of cocktail glasses, the vapid banter of faithless friends and the passing traffic of a Paris park is rather wonderful when it arrives. But this is as good as it gets.
There are, I suppose, worse ways to spend an hour or two of your time, but instead you might consider revisiting more nourishing Kundera and reminding yourself why you loved his brilliance in the first place. If want to keep that happy attachment, give this little mistake a wide berth. Lightness, it turns out, has ways of becoming unbearable.
The Festival of Insignificance, by Milan Kundera, Faber, RRP£14.99/Harper, RRP$23.99, 128 pages
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor
Illustration by Simon Pemberton
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