THE FESTIVAL OF INSIGNIFICANCE | MILAN KUNDERA | BOOK REVIEW

MILAN KUNDERA is one of the literature greats, a master of the written word who is better known for his classic THE UNBEARABLE LIKENESS OF BEING, Czech born author who self exiled to France in 1975 after having all his work banned by the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia until the downfall of the regime in the Velvet Revolution of 1989. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature numerous times and lives out of public life. He is also bloody old. While famous for his literature his quote on beer is also quite famous – “Isn’t beer the holy libation of sincerity? The potion that dispels all hypocrisy, any charade of fine manners? The drink that does nothing worse than incite its fans to urinate in all innocence, to gain weight in all frankness?”

It has been twelve years since his last novel and now, we present Kernel Fiona’s review of his latest literature, THE FESTIVAL OF INSIGNIFICANCE. It recently released from the peeps at Allen & Unwin, you can obtain it from all good bookstores or you can buy direct from HERE. All the best……JK.

BY FIONA FYFE

This is Kundera’s first novel in over a decade and as such, greatly anticipated. It’s typical Kundera fare – sex, intrigue and more sex but somehow there is a world-weariness to the writing that wasn’t apparent in his previous work. Perhaps the fact that he is now 84 might have something to do with the book’s brevity and meandering style. Nevertheless, the writing is still characteristically idiosyncratic and polished.

The book begins with Alain who is strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, considering the erotic value of exposed navels. All around him it would seem, young women are baring their mid-riffs and displaying their powers of seduction. He becomes intrigued by this phenomenon and reflects on the comparison between navels as erotic symbols as opposed to thighs, buttocks and breasts.

At roughly the same time, his friend Ramon is also strolling through the gardens heading for the Museum in anticipation of viewing an exhibition. At the last minute he decides against this course of action, frustrated as he is by waiting in queues and the ceaseless chatter of the general public. He is struck for a moment by how few of the semi-clad adolescents wandering beside him ever bother to stop and read the inscriptions on the garden’s monuments. Surprisingly, he finds their indifference quite soothing.

 

THE FESTIVAL OF INSIGNIFICANCE BOOK COVER IMAGE
THE FESTIVAL OF INSIGNIFICANCE | MILAN KUNDERA | SALTY POPCORN BOOK REVIEW | BOOK COVER IMAGE

 

Meanwhile, Ramon’s friend D’Ardelo has an appointment with his doctor to find out whether or not he has cancer. When he sees the doctor’s smiling face he realises that he has been granted a reprieve from an untimely death. Feeling elated he sets off across the Luxembourg Gardens for his apartment, saluting and laughing at three marble statues of the Queens of France. Midway, he encounters Ramon and for some unknown reason decides to pretend that he has been given a terminal diagnosis. D’Ardelo is oddly delighted by Ramon’s sympathetic response. On the strength of it, he invites Ramon to his upcoming birthday party.

Later, Ramon heads over to see his friend Charles to ask him if he and his friend Caliban will provide the catering for D’Ardelo’s party. Charles is obsessed with his dying mother and largely pre-occupied with creating a marionette theatre production featuring Stalin. He waxes on tediously about Stalin, the Politburo, Khrushchev and Kalinin but essentially, he is reflecting on the state of play in Europe following the Second World War. In different ways, all the characters are considering what we have been left in this post-war period. Meaningless consumerism? Facile reality tv? A constant re-hashing of old ideas?

Caliban, who assists Charles with the event co-ordination is an out of work actor. Bizarrely but perhaps for his own amusement, he presents himself to D’Ardelo’s other staff and guests as a Pakistani immigrant. Speaking gibberish but passing it off as fluent Pakistani, he is a neurotic who is perhaps frustrated at the lack of opportunity to showcase his dramatic talents.

Alain wears the scars of having been abandoned by his mother as a child of ten. His fixation on the naked navels of the girls in the Gardens seem to hark back to the last time he ever saw his mother when for whatever reason, she pointed at his belly button when he got out of the pool. He dreams up the idea that when she was pregnant with him, his mother attempted to drown herself in a local river but ended up drowning a young boy who came to rescue her, instead.

Alain’s relationship with women is perhaps dysfunctional. Having a twenty year old girlfriend as a man approaching his twilight years, seems to suggest that he is largely incapable of conducting a proper grown-up relationship. He regularly communes with his mother and imagines she is talking to him as an angel. The fact that he hasn’t been able to reconcile why she left him in the first place is a chronic source of inner distress.

D’Ardelo’s party is something of a fizzer. Ramon makes a serious attempt to get plastered by downing copious glasses of whiskey. Caliban, in character as a Pakistani freaks out when Ramon starts speaking to him in French and so the two engage in a bogus Pakistani conversation until they are sure no one is listening. D’Ardelo, still conscious of his need to keep his fictional cancer story afloat, continuously reminds himself to rein it in when he starts to have too much of a good time.

 

MILAN KUNDERA IMAGE
THE FESTIVAL OF INSIGNIFICANCE | MILAN KUNDERA | SALTY POPCORN BOOK REVIEW | AUTHOR IMAGE

 

To Ramon’s delight, he manages to avoid D’Ardelo altogether and flees the party, drunk and disorderly, without even bidding his host farewell. The following morning he visits Alain and they contemplate visiting the Museum’s exhibition. Ramon admits that he doesn’t really attend these exhibitions for the art work, but instead to note that from one week to the next the queues are getting lengthier.

He points out that the other patrons aren’t really there to view Chagall’s work either. “They’ll go anywhere, do anything, just to kill time they don’t know what to do with. They don’t know anything so they let themselves be led around. They’re superbly leadable.”

When Alain agrees to ditch the Museum idea and take a walk in the park instead, Ramon concedes that he is relieved. “I feel better here. Of course, uniformity rules everywhere. But in this park it has a wider choice of uniforms. So you can hold on to the illusion of your own individuality.”

Alain floats his navel theory with Ramon and the two friends ruminate on the plausibility of the navel as an erogenous zone. Alain maintains that women’s buttocks, thighs and breasts all represent a women’s individuality whereas the navel creates an illusion of such because no one could recognise someone by their belly button. It is an inane conversation, mercifully interrupted by the appearance of a hung-over D’Ardelo. The three friends are suddenly caught up in a street performance that has drawn a crowd. It is hard for them to discern at first whether or not they are witnessing reality or whether the spectacle is contrived. And so begins a new topic of conversation for the elderly trio as they watch a horse drawn carriage bearing Stalin away into the Paris streets. The reader is left to ponder whether that’s all life really is anyway? A festival of sublime insignificance.

 

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Kernel Fiona was a criminal defence lawyer in a former life and now critiques books and writes short stories. She can’t resist spending large tracts of time in libraries, book shops and at writer’s festivals. Hopelessly in love with the written word, she told JK when applying for a writing position that “I would rather read then breathe” – I knew I had my next reviewer right then.

 

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