Milan Kundera writes in French nowadays, and the people he writes about are as French as the language used to describe them. But he has not lost the whimsical Czech sensibility of his earlier works. His characters are still uncertain as to why they exist or whether it was entirely fair of their author to invent them. Kundera is one of those modern writers - Beckett is another - whose protagonists are not really detachable from the words on the page. They flicker on the paper like shadows cast by the syntax. They live in dreams of their own, and their interest lies not in what they do but in what they might have done had their creator offered them a story.
Kundera has an inimitable lightness of touch; he avoids literary effect and respects the residues of meaning that accumulate in ordinary things. These features of his style succeed somehow in persuading the reader that his characters are true to the strange but harmless emptiness of the world we live in now. The Festival of Insignificance announces this theme in its title. It describes a handful of characters who coincide at a birthday party, which was to be a final birthday party, except that the host's cancer scare proved to be unfounded.
Alain, whose narrative opens the book, is obsessed with navels - the navels that young girls now expose to public view, and his own navel, which was once poked by his mother, the sole remembered gesture of affection by the woman to whom he was once linked by this very part of him. Alain's mother abandoned him when he was young, but her disembodied voice pursues him. The conversation between them occurs in the background, a banal and pointless muttering.
Ramon is an art lover, whose life of retirement leaves him with little energy either to queue for exhibitions or to set off in pursuit of the women who catch his eye. Charles and Caliban are failed actors who make a living by catering for private parties and who communicate with each other in a nonsense language that they describe as Pakistani.
Kundera steers these characters towards routine events and ordinary people, egging them on to find significance in the very insignificance of everything that happens to them. There is no story, simply a series of tableaus, carefully and economically presented, but with a view to showing that meaning is there on the page, not in some beyond for which the words are reaching. Kundera is not absent from the narrative. At one point he writes, 'The four friends I have introduced here - Alain, Ramon, Charles and Caliban - I love. In my fondness for them, I brought Charles the Khrushchev book for them all to enjoy.' The book is the Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, which contains stories of Stalin and his entourage.
Kundera has always been obsessed by Stalin, as is understandable for someone brought up in the Czechoslovakia of the 1960s. He uses this opportunity to relay Khrushchev's banal stories of the tyrant, and also to meditate at length on Kalinin, the insignificant member of the Politburo whose name we nevertheless know - Kaliningrad being the name bestowed on Königsberg when Stalin seized the city at the end of the war. Kalinin's very insignificance is what interests Kundera. After all, if he had been significant, wouldn the city made famous by Kant still bear Kalinin's name? Surely it would have gone the way of Stalingrad and Leningrad.
Certain themes link the episodes together. One in particular catches the reader's attention, which is the theme of the angel. Alain's obsession with navels leads him to suppose that angels must be without them, since they are never born. This gives rise to an interesting rumination on the anatomy of Eve. The vision of a slim, navel-free but beautiful body provides Alain with a symbol of chastity. And Caliban, encountering a modest Portuguese maid in the kitchen of the apartment where he is performing his duties as a caterer, is also granted a vision of angels.
A feather, floating beneath the ceiling of the room where the party is taking place, has perhaps, thinks Ramon, been dropped by a fallen angel. A sexy woman, recently bereaved, catches it on the tip of her finger. 'Heaven has sent me', she says, 'a sign that my life is to be even more glorious than before.' And in Khrushchev's fragmentary narrative the Politburo look up startled in the room where they sit to see an angel falling beyond the window.
Somehow this angel, imagined in different ways by each of the characters, summarises both the insignificance of the events surrounding them and the significance that can be found in this very insignificance. The French used to be in the habit of saying, when there is a lull in events, un ange passé. Maybe the little tableaus in Kundera's strange fiction illustrate that saying. Each episode, understated but nevertheless polished until you can see right through it to the emptiness beyond, is pure and diaphanous, like an angel. But I reached the end of the book without discovering the point of any of the characters. Which I suppose is the point.
You can read the article online here
The Festival of Insignificance
By Milan Kundera
(Translated by Linda Asher)
(Faber & Faber 115pp £14.99