How French this little book seems! Milan Kundera is still known as a Czech writer, mainly because of his early works, in particular such novels as “The Joke,” “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” and, above all, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” But he has lived in France for the past 40 years, and his more recent books, like this one, have been written in the language of his adopted country. There are no Czechs in “The Festival of Insignificance,” and the entire action — apart from some flashbacks and fantasies — takes place in Paris.
The important characters are all men, too, our “heroes,” Kundera calls them. They are lightly sketched, four of them good friends, despite a wide difference in age. The most important, Alain, is retired, moody and reflective. In the opening section of the book, “Alain Meditates on the Navel,” he muses about the various erogenous zones of the female body. The current fashion, he notes, is for young girls to wear their jeans slung low with a T-shirt cut short, so that the bare midriff draws the male gaze. Why, he wonders, has the navel temporarily replaced the thighs, buttocks and breasts as the center of female seductive power?
While Alain is mulling over these sexual mysteries, his friend Ramon is strolling in the Luxembourg Gardens, wishing that the line to see a nearby Chagall exhibition wasn’t so long or the tourists so noisy. Wandering among the greenery, he encounters a buoyant D’Ardelo, happy because some recent medical tests have come back negative: He is not, as he thought, dying of cancer. Till recently the two men, now apparently retired, worked together at an unnamed “institute,” so they pause to chat. A former colleague has recently died . Surprisingly, his widow attended a dinner party on the very day of his death, and there, though her eyes were still red with tears, she laughed and made merry. Life must go on, eh? Taken with a perverse impulse, D’Ardelo suddenly lets on, quite untruthfully, that he is suffering from cancer and probably has only months to live. Ramon is shocked.
Giving a stoic shrug and a wan smile of resignation, D’Ardelo declares that he’s still planning to celebrate his birthday with a cocktail party. Might he hire Ramon’s friends Charles and Caliban to work as waiters? Yes, of course. Caliban — a nickname — is an unemployed actor, who, when pouring glasses of wine, pretends that he is Pakistani. He even speaks in a made-up lingo and, like any serious dramatic artist, never breaks character. The opposite, however, is true of this short novel, in which Kundera regularly reminds us of its fictiveness. Charles, for instance, mentions that he is reading “Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev.” It is, he says, a gift from “our master,” who has “underlined a few paragraphs for me.” Later references make clear that this “master” is none other than the Franco-Czech author himself, the one “who invented us.”
As readers of Kundera’s essays know, he greatly admires Sterne, Diderot and other practitioners of those tricksy meta-fictions that make little pretense of being “real.” Thus, only a dozen pages into “The Festival of Insignificance,” the book has already begun to grow multilayered, stereoptic. A new thread soon develops around a passage in Khrushchev’s memoirs during which Stalin spins a tall tale about shooting 24 partridges. While relating this obvious leg-pull to members of his inner circle, the Soviet leader deliberately teases out the action, adding more and more detail, so that he can observe the growing discomfort of Mikhail Kalinin, who suffers from a prostate problem requiring frequent bathroom visits. Stalin doesn’t end his story until the poor man finally wets his pants.
The four friends — Ramon, Alain, Charles and Caliban — duly discuss the meaning of the partridge anecdote, analyze Stalin’s attitude toward Kalinin and speculate about the reasons he gave Koenigsberg the new name of Kaliningrad. Similar mildly philosophical conversations recur throughout the novel: Why is it that a rather mousey, unprepossessing man can seduce women more successfully than a witty and handsome one? Are the experiences of differing generations so great that real communication among them is almost impossible? How is it that people can be divided into the jostlers and the jostled?
Kundera is now in his late 80s, and death, not surprisingly, is much on his mind. D’Ardelo has dodged cancer; Charles’s mother is dying; Caliban suffers a dangerous injury; the depressive Ramon yearns to achieve “a good mood,” which alone makes life worth living. Even the much younger Alain fantasizes about the mother he never knew, who wanted to abort him, who may have tried to kill herself and did disappear entirely from his life.
Nonetheless, the title of the novel is “The Festival of Insignificance,” a phrase that could be a definition of life itself. “Insignificance,” says Ramon, “is the essence of existence.” Yet this shouldn’t be a cause of despair. Life is still a festival. Joy must be found in the quotidian and seemingly inconsequential, the overlooked details of the everyday, the small things. “The best portion of a good man’s life,” wrote Wordsworth, are “his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”
Sympathetic readers will find “The Festival of Insignificance” an entertaining divertissement, a lightly comic fiction blending Gallic theorizing and Russian-style absurdity: The final slapstick scene between Stalin and Kalinin could almost appear in Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.” This is, in short, just the book for an idle afternoon spent sipping espresso and watching the passing show on the Boulevard Saint-Michel or Connecticut Avenue.
To the unsympathetic, though, “The Festival of Insignificance” will come across as simply inconsequential and pretentious. Yet however you judge it, in Linda Asher’s translation, the short novel flows along smoothly and the intertwined stories are involving enough to keep anyone turning the pages. Plus, who knows? You may begin by scoffing and then find yourself reading all the way to the end with real, if muted, pleasure.
Michael Dirda reviews for Book World on Thursdays.
THE FESTIVAL OF INSIGNIFICANCE
By Milan Kundera
Translated from the French by Linda Asher
Harper. 115 pp. $23.99