Book review

Milan Kundera's The Festival Of Insignificance

The festival of insignificance
The festival of insignificancePHOTO: HARPER COLLINS

By Milan Kundera, translated from French by Linda Asher

Harper/Hardcover/128 pages/ $24.99/Books Kinokuniya/3.5/5

Walking down a Paris street one morning, Alain is captivated by a young girl's navel, resting like a jewel on her exposed midriff.

The navel turns into a totem-like symbol for him of a mother's umbilical connection to a foetus.

Alain, you see, was abandoned by his mother as a young boy and the narrative will cut from time to time to her - this wrathful, anti-maternal figure he has conjured in the theatre of his mind.

The ever apologetic Alain - always quick to say sorry in any kind of conflict - is one of numerous tragicomic characters in Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera's The Festival Of Insignificance.

True to form for the master of the metaphysical and the absurd, this is a novel of ideas and unexpected connections - some tenuous and others very sharp - held together by Kundera's offbeat imagination, characterised by an intelligence as rigorous as it is unashamedly irreverent.

True to form for the master of the metaphysical and the absurd, this is a novel of ideas and unexpected connections held together by Milan Kundera's offbeat imagination, characterised by an intelligence as rigorous as it is unashamedly irreverent.

At heart, this is a whimsical meditation on obscure, even clownish personalities, interactions and forces which turn out to possess great import.

There is the quiet, almost invisible playboy Quaquelique whose appeal to any beautiful woman lies in his apparent lack of brilliance which "sets her free. Spares her the need for vigilance".

Then there is puppet Soviet leader Kalinin who, in Kundera's version of events, submits his swollen prostate and uncontrollable urinary urge to Stalin's endless storytelling, fearing to interrupt the great man by rushing to the toilet.

This inspires the dictator to rename a city after Kalinin. Kundera dispatches these and other episodes with great skill and a touch of self-congratulation.

The Czech exile, who embraced his adopted home of France by subsequently writing in its language, made his name with The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1984), an erotic triangle of idealism and loss set against the backdrop of war and violence in Eastern Europe.

It was on every would-be artist and intellectual's reading list in the 1980s and 1990s, and made bowler hats sexy, thanks in part to the 1988 movie version starring Daniel Day Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin.

The sprawling cast of The Festival Of Insignificance lacks the magnetism of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being's threesome. But 30 years on, what this slim novel has going for it is brevity and a certain pared-down incisiveness. An affecting, polyphonic, if occasionally tedious, ride.

If you like this, read: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (Vintage, 1974, $17.05, Books Kinokuniya), another slim but incredibly rich collection of poetic vignettes about fictional cities invoked by a imaginary dialogue between the Venetian emissary Marco Polo and the emperor of the Tartars, Kublai Khan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2015, with the headline 'The festival of insignificance'. Print Edition | Subscribe