The Festival of Insignificance
is the eleventh novel by Paris-based Czech novelist Milan Kundera. It was published in France in 2013, and an English language version was published in 2015. A slim volume at only 115 pages, The Festival of Insignificance
is divided into seven parts, a technique which Kundera also used in his debut novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The Festival of Insignificance
also shares other key themes with the earlier novel, which has led critics to see them as bookends to Kundera’s career as a writer.The Festival of Insignificance
is about five male friends living in Paris. Lacking a central narrative, the book, instead, focuses on minor incidents in the lives of these characters, conversations they have, and their inner monologues. Alain, a middle-aged intellectual, narrates most frequently. As the novel opens, Alain is strolling down a Paris street, ogling women and thinking about the feelings their different body parts stir in him.
Around the same time, Alain’s recently retired friend, Ramon, is in the Luxembourg Gardens admiring the sculptures. Ramon runs into his wealthy friend, D’Ardelo, and they gossip about an acquaintance, Madame Franck. They both admire her courage in the face of her husband’s death, expressed in the way she quickly rejoined society shortly after he died. Ramon invites D’Ardelo to his birthday party; D’Ardelo confesses that he has untreatable cancer and will soon die, though none of this is true. Ramon believes the lie, and D’Ardelo is pleased that he was so convincing.
After parting with D’Ardelo, Ramon visits his friend Charles to discuss a cocktail party they are planning. However, they become distracted gossiping about Quaquelique, a friend of theirs whom they find banal and unfunny to be around. Ramon mentions that Quaquelique has more success with women than D’Ardelo. Charles explains that Quaquelique’s personality is more agreeable than D’Ardelo’s. They both agree that D’Ardelo is a narcissist but still feel sorry for him because of his non-existent disease.
Caliban, an out of work actor, joins Ramon and Charles. They talk about a story Charles recently read in the book Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev
. Caliban laughs off the story about Stalin, but Charles makes the point that people under Stalin wouldn’t have found it very funny. However, they agree that the story must have been intended as a joke and the only reason it was misunderstood was that no one knew what a joke was anymore.
Meanwhile, Alain continues to think about women’s bodies, specifically the navel. He recalls an event from his childhood in which he thought he noticed his mother staring at his navel with contempt and pity. His mother abandoned him shortly after that. Alain tells Charles about this, and Charles confesses that he has been thinking about his mother recently as well. Before they can continue, however, they have to get ready for a party.
Caliban is working at the party as a waiter. While working at such events, he often pretends to be Pakistani, speaking in a made-up language. He and Charles see this as a joke, but how it is meant to be funny remains unclear. Ramon attempts to speak to Caliban in French, but Caliban warns him not to spoil the joke. Ramon is afraid that Caliban’s joke might land him in jail and laments society’s lack of humor. Caliban makes it through the party undiscovered and goes to Alain’s for a drink.
The next morning, Alain senses the presence of his mother. He imagines his mother apologizing to him for bringing him into the world without his consent, while Alain apologizes for coming into his mother’s life without being asked.
He meets Ramon and D’Ardelo in the Luxembourg Gardens, and they stroll among the statues. Children are busy setting up the park for a concert. Ramon, who still believes that D’Ardelo is soon to die, tells him that it is important to maintain a good sense of humor and a positive mood, including joking and pranking. The men feel light-hearted and happy as the children in the park begin to sing “La Marseilles.”The Festival of Insignificance
is more a collection of anecdotes than a novel. It centers on the importance of joking, teasing, and not taking life seriously all the time. Flashbacks to the past make the claim that even Stalin was a joker and prankster, a motif that fascinates Kundera, a survivor of the Soviet Union.
Between the book’s obsession with long-dead figures like Kalinin and its existentialist need to contemplate the meaningless of existence and the isolation of people, The Festival of Insignificance
seems as though it should have been written in a different time. It would be more at home in the first half of the twentieth century than in the twenty-first.