Lounge Review: The Festival of Insignificance4 min read . Updated: 18 Jul 2015, 10:33 AM IST
The structure of Milan Kundera's slim novella is wrought with jocular whimsy, as if it were itself meant to be a thing of insignificance
The Festival Of Insignificance is like the tacit epilogue to Milan Kundera’s body of work. Various strains of this polyphony evoke passages from his previous books. It is not just a thematic succession but seems pointedly referential in parts, notably drawing on the marrow of Kundera’s earlier novels.
Kundera has always been something of a philosopher’s writer, and a rather flippant one—his audacity serving to liberate from the dreariness of pious reverence. The author’s literary narratives are tonally contrapuntal to the severity of his masters, like Friedrich Nietzsche. With this book the author celebrates and modernizes their iconoclastic musings with farcical earnestness.
The world view that Kundera has cleaved to over his career is reinstated with conviction in his latest work. His characters aren’t afforded elaborate context, wherein their internal conflicts—like Tereza’s struggle with the “value of insignificance" in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1984)—may be deeply understood. In Insignificance, Kundera does not bother with dissecting the psychological anatomy of his characters; they think, therefore they are. The author interweaves fragments of the lives of a bunch of friends and acquaintances through brief encounters over a short period of time. The slim novella’s structure is wrought with jocular whimsy, as if it were itself meant to be a thing of insignificance.
In the past, some of Kundera’s characters have paid dearly for a society plagued by humourlessness. In Insignificance there is a great deal of sermonizing about the dangers of the “twilight of joking", at one point even subtly invoking the premise of The Joke (1967). One of the book’s main assertions is that the ability to laugh and appreciate a joke is intrinsically tied to a “good mood".
By way of the Memoirs Of Nikita Khrushchev—the revelatory tome in which Khrushchev is unreserved in his critique of Joseph Stalin and offers an intimate portrait of the infamous leader’s inner circle—that is introduced as a subject of discussion for the characters, Kundera incorporates history in his farce. The beginning of the “post-joking age"—originally created by the author as a device to critique the zeitgeist of the communist-era totalitarian state—is merged with the present.
Kundera’s fixation with themes of bodily humiliation and the relativism of suffering is reinforced with another one of his fancies—speculative sketches inspired by the life and times of Stalin. The writer conjures up vignettes about Stalin and his party officials, Khrushchev and Mikhail Kalinin, with his added flourish for the excretory trials of humans. In this case, Kalinin is afflicted by urinary incontinence. The official suffers the pressure of urine in his bladder, sitting through one of Stalin’s sadistically long retellings of a contentious anecdote. This inspires odd compassion in the otherwise callous premier.
Kalinin’s ludicrous fortitude is rewarded by Stalin—who delights in legitimizing his caprices with his absolute power—in renaming the city of Königsberg, Kaliningrad. Honouring Kalinin this way undermines the eminence of Königsberg’s most deserving citizen, Immanuel Kant. Kalinin, who is historically known for his nominal role in Stalin’s administration, is used as one of the metaphors for insignificance.
Each example of the insignificant demonstrates a different nature of essentiality in the book. Kundera urges us to consider the importance of insignificance, which is key to a good mood. In more profound terms, not taking things seriously is valued as the most effective form of resistance—the necessity of gallows humour.
In something of a montage sequence, Kundera tenuously connects Arthur Schopenhauer’s reflections on will, representation and chastity. Stalin embodies the malevolence of will, and imposition of representation on the populace while Caliban, a present-day character, is confronted with a sudden “nostalgia for chastity" after he shares an innocent kiss with a demure girl, and the act’s quaintness lingers with him. Schopenhauer’s antidote to desire and will is given newfound relevance in our hyper-sexualized age.
An absurd digression of the novella is a meditation on the sensuality of the navel, which is eventually resolved in an epiphany: It is an identical feature in all human beings. This physical aspect aligns with the author’s intellectualization of individuality.
In Identity (1998), a case was made for the merits of conformity. In Insignificance, a purportedly liberal society is cast as a multitude of uniforms that allows for the illusion of individuality. Could this be Kundera’s comment on the permanence of representation and uniformity, slyly thriving even in a post-communist world? The author’s politics has been sparsely expressed over his last few novels. In this regard, Kundera’s critique of individuality, beguiled as the essence of capitalism, could be most intriguing in today’s world.
The Festival Of Insignificance is also a tricky exercise in perspectivism. When you find yourself considering an idea with seriousness, Kundera pulls the sombre rug from under your feet, making the significant incredibly trifling. Also, if the book draws you into a grave, contemplative mood, you might be an agent of the humourlessness Kundera laments. It would be safer to trust that this is all for a lark, to assist us in scaling the “heights of an infinite good mood", so we may be in on Kundera’s joke.