The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera

Brooke Boland

This is not a narrative driven by plot, but rather by the idiosyncrasies of its characters.
The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera’s latest novel, The Festival of Insignificance, is not a narrative driven by its plot, but rather by the idiosyncrasies of its characters and their musings on life. Set in Paris, this short work follows the lives of four friends, Charles, Caliban, Alain and Ramon, and comments unapologetically on the insignificance of existence with gentle humour and thoughtful, even caring, attention to the character's lives. 

Apologetic Alain imagines conversations with his mother who left when he was ten; Charles dreams of a play for the marionette theatre that he will never write; Caliban, a failed actor, makes up an intricate ‘pakistani’ language and plays the part of distant foreigner; and Ramon, the eternal critic, plans each weekend to attend the latest Chagall exhibition, but is put off on each arrival by the length of the queue.

For a novel that deals in insignificance, the temptation to contextualize it as one of universal significance in its representation recognizes the extent to which Kundera’s writing can be, and has been, read as a universal narrative on humanity. However, dissuading this impulse, the novel is really about man’s experience. Women in the text are few, often present only by their absence, as the nonexistent mother, and the distant, dying mother, the girlfriend away on business who calls occasionally, and the numerous women who walk by with shirts that reveal their navel. I can only conclude that the novel is actually about the insignificant details of men’s lives as they negotiate their position in society and their relationships with the women who are hardly, if at all, present.

Having said that, the novel is very enjoyable; the dialogue is wonderfully written and the story is punctuated by moments of stillness that sharply contrast with the immediacy of the interchange between each characters simultaneous perspective.

Breaking the fourth wall, the narrator, referred to in one part as the “Master,” admits to giving Charles a copy of Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, a book that instigates a curious inclusion of shorter tales on Stalin and members of the Soviet Union that further support the narrative and becomes a framing narrative for many of the discussions that the friends share.

Overall, readers will be very pleased with this latest release from Kundera, which has all the wit and humour of his earlier Immortality, but adds to this a unique and careful attention to unknown characters lives.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Festival of Insignificance

By Milan Kundera

Translated from the French by Linda Asher

Faber Faber 2015

About the author

Brooke Boland is a freelance writer based on the South Coast of NSW.