Does Milan Kundera Still Matter?

The Czech writer’s new novel The Festival of Insignificance sees a new specter haunting Europe: a decadent and dying culture.

Boris Pelcer

I was in high school in 1980, when Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was translated into English from his native Czech, and I can still remember the excitement surrounding the publication of a novel that mixed memoir, philosophy, and history; explored with acid humor the effect of totalitarianism on daily life; and featured orgies the way Pride and Prejudice featured dinner parties. Philip Roth—instrumental in introducing Kundera to American readers—once observed that for writers in the West “everything goes and nothing matters,” whereas for those trapped in Communist Czechoslovakia “nothing goes and everything matters.” Kundera, who wrote The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in France, where he found refuge after fleeing his country in 1975, seemed to be a mysterious hybrid for whom everything went and everything mattered.

The illusion was not sustainable, but it was fun while it lasted. Part of the perverse thrill of reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1984, was that you could feel politically enlightened while watching a beautiful woman in a bowler hat and little else open the door for her lover, a neurosurgeon who spends his spare time wandering around Prague telling random women to take off their clothes. This did not happen in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Reading Kundera in the ’80s was like watching Mad Men with the conviction that smoking, drinking, and grabbing the secretary’s ass were bold assertions of individual autonomy in the face of a cruelly repressive state.

Czech Communism collapsed 25 years ago. Kundera, who is 86, has lived in France for 40 years and written in French for more than two decades. The Festival of Insignificance—his first novel in 13 years—is an excellent opportunity to ask what happens to his fiction once the backdrop of Soviet oppression no longer throws his dark jokes, nihilism, and naughty interludes into bright relief. Is he doing no more than exercising his unconstrained imagination, vindicating his claim that he is not a political writer but a literary purist devoted to the freedom of aesthetic play? Or is he a dark prophet who, if you listen hard and carefully to the work, can be heard brooding aloud about the fate of a doomed Europe? The sense that Kundera is himself pondering these questions lends this playful puzzle an unexpected urgency.

The title is a joke on itself, and on the reader. It asks, the way The Little Book of Nothing might, “Why are you wasting your time reading me?” But just as making something out of nothing also describes what God and artists do, so Kundera’s title is a declaration of artistic purpose: for him the novel is the flower of European culture precisely because of its insignificance. In The Art of the Novel, translated from French to English in 1988, Kundera championed game-playing writers like Miguel de Cervantes and Laurence Sterne, slippery serpents who swallow their own tails and who gave birth to the modern masters Kundera most admires: Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch. He places his own work in the tradition of fiction that lives only in its mysterious unfolding and “winds up in a paradox.”

Yet for a writer in love with paradox, Kundera has powerfully prescriptive tendencies. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting—a novel that forms the backdrop of the present novel the way Communism once formed the backdrop of Laughter and Forgetting—Kundera taught his readers to be wary of children, angels, circle dancing, hope, nostalgia, and sentimentality. These are the emissaries of delusory optimism. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting also taught readers that there is a good sort of laughter—sardonic, irreverent, and mocking—and a bad sort, which is uncritical, joyful, and acquiescent. There is a lot of the bad sort in The Festival of Insignificance.

At the center of this brief novel are four friends who crisscross the Luxembourg Gardens, in Paris, in a succession of short chapters. One is an out-of-work actor called Caliban, so ignorant that he has never heard of Khrushchev. The eldest, Ramon, is a recently retired academic who knows a great deal but has embraced “insignificance” as a theory of life, renouncing all hope of meaning in the world. Alain is the mother-obsessed son of a woman who abandoned him when he was a baby. Charles is a philosophically minded caterer who is writing a play—but only in his head.

The Luxembourg Gardens is itself a kind of character, with its busts of great thinkers, scientists, and writers and its statues of France’s queens planted symbolically in what was once the heart of European culture but is now an open-air museum of forgotten civilization. Kundera is a master at uniting disparate characters by tracing their intersecting journeys, and by allowing resonant words inside the head of one character to sing inside the thoughts of another. He links unrelated scenes with thematic words that make episodes feel simultaneous as well as sequential. This is how a 120-page novel can feel so much larger: it is constantly looping back on itself.

But all of this formal unity is a mask for a deeper disharmony. Plot has never mattered much to Kundera, and what passes for a story line in The Festival of Insignificance is set in motion by a lie. Its source is a peripheral figure whose path crosses Ramon’s in the gardens. This man pretends on a whim to have cancer in order to impress Ramon, a former colleague he doesn’t actually respect. As we watch the spread of this “fictional cancer”—a wonderfully ambiguous phrase suggesting that unregulated growth of the imagination might itself be a disease—it becomes the catalyst for an actual festival of insignificance: Ramon’s colleague throws a party for himself so he can strike a heroic pose in the face of his imaginary illness.

The party is a dramatic climax, even though not much happens. It is catered by Charles and Caliban and attended by the unhappy Ramon, who gets drunk after the attractive woman he was hoping to sleep with goes home with a bland nonentity—ironic proof of Ramon’s theory that insignificance is the ultimate seduction. Caliban pretends to be Pakistani and spouts gibberish, while a famous but inane beauty, fresh from her lover’s deathbed, mesmerizes the other guests by catching a feather on her fingertip as if touching an angel.

Anyone who remembers The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a far less hermetic novel, will know that angels are evil, the utopian enablers of totalitarianism who lend a celestial smile to conformity. By the end of The Festival of Insignificance, Paris is thick with angels. This is unsurprising, because Kundera’s France has grown so frivolous and amnesiac that when Stalin—yes, Stalin—appears in the Luxembourg Gardens in a surreal scene at the novel’s end, he is cheered by a crowd of Parisians who find him irresistible.

Stalin has sprung from the head of Charles, the playwright-caterer, and though this magic might seem an affirmation of the power of the imagination, it is also more “fictional cancer.” As Stalin charms the crowd, Alain focuses on the phantasm of his runaway mother, who has been conjured by his thoughts. Standing beside him, she is infected by Stalin’s laughter, which is “so gay, so free, so innocent, so rustic, so brotherly, so contagious that everyone around, as if relieved, starts laughing as well.”

This is the laughter of angels, and nothing is more dangerous in Kundera’s world; such transports of self-forgetting clear a path for tyrants. The only antidote is ridicule of the sort unleashed in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Sarah, an irreverent Israeli girl in France who banishes three archangels in human form by kicking two of them in the ass and unleashing a storm of mockery. Her work done, Sarah vanishes from the novel, but the section she appears in ends with a rare, plaintive cry of loss from the authorial narrator (who is not necessarily Kundera but not necessarily anybody else either). Abandoning his customary irony, he declares: “Sarah is out there somewhere, I know she is, my Jewish sister Sarah. But where can I find her?”

Not in Paris. Certainly nobody among the passive characters in The Festival of Insignificance will break the spell of Stalin’s laughter. The narrator tells us he loves his four wanderers, but—though they are not without charm—it is hard to avoid feeling that they are the four Frenchmen of the apocalypse, auguring a decadent Europe’s doom. The novel may be the flower of European culture, but that culture is so exhausted and inward that it has devolved into little more than navel-gazing.

Indeed, on the opening page, Alain walks down a Paris street spinning theories about a new age for the female body as he marvels at “the young girls who, every one of them, showed her naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short.” The notion that “their seductive power no longer resided in their thighs, their buttocks, or their breasts, but in that small round hole located in the center of the body” alarms Alain. Navels are connected to umbilical cords, which lead to thoughts of procreation. This unwelcome chain of biological associations is unfair to women, Alain believes, robbing them of their individuality—a perverse feminism predicated on the preservation of female eroticism. His sterile fantasy at the novel’s outset is the perfect complement to the violence at its close, when Stalin shoots off the nose of the statue of Marie de Médicis, a queen of France and the 17th-century founder of the Luxembourg Gardens. The past defaced, the barren future beckons.

Kundera encrypts his foreboding in near-impenetrable irony. The narrator observes dryly that Marie de Médicis, having been shot, “looks even older, uglier, heavier, more arrogant” than before. Yet in The Festival of Insignificance, the agile aesthete is unmistakably shadowed by a brooding prophet. Kundera once told an interviewer that living in France was not living in exile, because his true home was Western culture, which continued to prosper in Paris. But Kundera is keenly aware of the failure of transnational fantasies. Czechoslovakia was betrayed by the civilization it helped create, which fed Kundera’s homeland to Hitler in 1938 before it was swallowed up by invasion from the east. Western Europe—too weak, optimistic, or suicidally self-involved to stand up for Czechoslovakia—cut out its own heart.

None of this is incidental to Kundera’s writing. Accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 1985, he praised Israel for giving one of its highest awards to an international novel and paying tribute, despite betrayal, to “a Europe conceived not as territory but as culture.” This, he made clear, is more than Europe deserves:

If the Jews, even after Europe so tragically failed them, nonetheless kept faith with that European cosmopolitanism, Israel, their little homeland finally regained, strikes me as the true heart of Europe—a peculiar heart located outside the body.

Here is a paradox worthy of Kafka. It takes a little homeland regained to house a large transnational dream. Europe, meanwhile, has become a shrunken wanderer.

Kundera reprints his Jerusalem Prize speech as the final stand-alone section of The Art of the Novel, giving it the last word in his formulation of a tradition that elevates irony, ambiguity, and detachment to the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Though his speech honors his familiar heroes—Cervantes and other free-range literary chickens who have all of European culture to play in—it also challenges the very idea of Western Europe. If the heart of Europe is no longer in its body, it doesn’t matter whether you live in Prague or Paris, not because you are always at home but because you cannot be at home in a world forever exiled from itself. Irony, ambiguity, and detachment will not save you.

Kundera’s longing for a refuge infused with Western values and safe from European betrayals is real, and in The Festival of Insignificance that yearning has a valedictory feel. Fond though his narrator professes to be of his frivolous characters—he tells us that “in my unbeliever’s dictionary, only one word is sacred: ‘friendship’ ”—Kundera the author is perhaps not so sure that his loyalty to them, or to his unbeliever’s dictionary, can carry the day. If you listen closely to this novel of smooth and playful surfaces, you will hear another voice, still crying out for Sarah.