Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignificance seems poetic, personal and political on the one page and then dismissive and cynical on the very next. The novel is the perfect microcosm of the nihilistic modern world, and when that dystopia is set in the historically romantic city of Paris, it turns into a symbol of tragedy. However, although Kundera’s novel brings us back to the celebrated “insignificance” and boredom of modern-day life, it also seems to illustrate a tangible bitterness towards the fact that in doing so we are abandoning his beloved traditions of old.
The plot centers around four friends who seem to do little but allow themselves to be tortured by their thoughts, man’s essential cliché of the existential crisis. The reader feels a bit like an outsider, listening to unashamedly honest conversations between the four men: Alain constantly laments over why his mother left him as a child; Caliban is an unfaithful husband yearning for chastity; Charles spends his days planning a marionette show about Stalin which he will self-admittedly never create; Ramon is constantly worrying about nothing in particular. Their conversations are honest, but they also feel very typical of a time when popular media was mostly centered around the love, lives and friendships of men.The novel’s structure juxtaposes the four men’s thoughts over the space of a few weeks and renders it more like an interwoven personal diary. The more you read the more you understand that the characters don’t need the reader; they are very happy sharing their lives with nobody else but their friends. The mistake Kundera makes is that the circle leaves no room for contemplation. It feels like everything apart from their friendship is insignificant.
If Kundera had fully followed through with the title, The Festival of Insignificance, this book might have been a very interesting read. The friends’ musings on Stalin are never fully explained; the stories they tell of him are obscure and lack relevance unless you are part of, or actively interested their conversations for their own sake, and even more so if you are female, as the only females in the novel of any worth are their mothers, or pure, virginal “angels”. This fantasy version of Paris is definitely a man’s world. The only substantive female character is Alain’s estranged mother. The few anecdotes from a woman’s point of view are very uncomfortable to read, mainly because Kundera seems to have gotten important and intimate things like pregnancy and sex very wrong. Ramon views a woman’s bottom wiggling as “both greeting and inviting” even though she is evidently avoiding him. Girls in their twenties do not know the names of the likes of Stalin or Bosch and pregnancy is a depicted as punishment for men refusing to do as they are told.
That Kundera’s dated sexism lingers is a shame as there are some very profound comments on the pettiness of life in the digital age. The narrator who pops up sporadically, who is evidently Kundera himself, ponders the fall of angels:
Indeed, what is that fall a sign of? A murdered utopia, after which there will never be any other? An era that will leave no trace? Books, paintings, flung into the void? A Europe that will no longer be Europe? Jokes that no one will ever laugh at again?
Questions such as these resonate with everybody. Here Kundera finally addresses the theme directly – but three quarters of the way through the book? As the narrator, he has been grappling with his fears throughout, and it is only at this point that Kundera has truly managed to define them, and subsequently accept his discomfort living in an age very different to his own.