After a fourteen/fifteen year hiatus Milan Kundera, now aged 86, has returned. His last published novel was “L’Ignorance” (‘Ignorance”) in 2000 and therefore the arrival of “La fête de l’insignifiance” (“The Festival Of Insignificance”) meant a trip to the bookshop was in order. Many readers would be aware of his best-selling novel “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being” (“Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí”), from mid 1980’s, written in Czech before he switched to French.
Kundera is a meditator on the melancholy; his works are generally filled with little gems that you have to sort from the worthless deposits that surround them. And his latest very slim work is no different. However when you have limited alluvium the gems are hardly worth recovering, the effort is too great for too small a reward. My edition runs to 115 pages, the font is larger than usual, there are many blank pages between the seven parts so in total we are possibly looking at 50-60 pages of text.
In Enrique Vila-Matas’ “The Illogic Of Kassel” (translated by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom) we have the concept of McGuffin’s, a red-herring in the text that keeps you reading, a trap, something to hook the reader in, a devise which has little to do with the plot, but allows the story to advance. “The Festival of Insignificance” is full of McGuffins.
Part one of our work is called “Introducing the heroes” and opens with Alain meditating on the navel, as young girls walk around Paris with a “naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short.” A book that is going to contemplate the navel? Be warned… of course this section introduces us to the dramatis personae, a group of friends, acquaintances who at some stage will also contemplate insignificance.
Part two “the Marionette Theatre” gives us the story of Stalin relaying his tale of shooting 24 partridges, it is a joke, but Khrushchev treats it with distain – Stalin is lying:
After a moment Charles said: “Time moves on. Because of time, first we’re alive – which is to say: indicted and convicted. Then we die, and for a few more years we live on in the people who knew us, but very soon there’s another change; the dead become the old dead, no one remembers them any longer and they vanish into the void; only a few of them, very, very rare ones, leave their names behind in people’s memories, but, lacking any authentic witness now, any actual recollection, they become marionettes. Friends, I am fascinated by that story Khrushchev tells in his memoirs. And I cannot shake off the urge to draw on it and invent a play for the marionette theatre.”
As our story builds momentum you suddenly find the story cut off by what seem trivial events, are these ticks, will the whole come into focus before our book is done? One of Stalin’s advisers, Kalinin, suffers from an enlarged prostrate, causing him to be unable to hold his pee, part of Stalin’s humour included lengthy dissertations to amuse himself on Kalinin’s discomfort. We then learn of this association through the bizarre naming of a city Kaliningrad.
To hell with the so-called great men whose names adorn our streets. They all became famous through their ambitions, their vanity, their lies, their cruelty. Kalinin is the only one whose name will live on in memory of an ordeal that every human being has experienced, in memory of a desperate battle that brought misery on no one but himself.
Our book is peppered with insignificant events, which are then debated, for example Alain is bumped by a rude woman walking in the opposite direction, he apologises:
“Feeling guilty or not feeling guilty – I think that’s the whole issue. Life is a struggle of all against all. It’s a known fact. But how does that struggle work in a society that’s more or less civilized? People can’t just attack each other the minute they see them. SO instead they try to cast the shame of culpability on the other. The one who managed to make the other one guilty will win. The one who confesses his crime will lose. You’re walking along the street, lost in thought. Along comes a girl, walking straight ahead as if she were the only person in the world, looking neither left nor right. You jostle one another. And there it is, the moment of truth: Who’s going to bawl out the other person, and who’s going to apologize? It’s a classic situation: Actually, each of them is both the jostled and the jostler. And yet some people always – immediately, spontaneously – consider themselves the jostlers, thus in the wrong. And others always – immediately, spontaneously – consider themselves the jostled ones, therefore in the right, quick to accuse the other and get him punished. What about you – in that situation, would you apologize or accuse?”
The impossibility/insignificance of language is also explored, through a character Caliban, named after the “savage” in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, he is actually an actor who to remain aloof, has created his own language, he becomes an actor without an audience. Using this invented “Pakistani” he ends up in conversation with a Portuguese maid, of course the concept is just absurd.
I have just reviewed Enrique’s Vila-Matas’ “Bartleby & Co.” (translated by Johnathan Dunne), where the ‘literature of the No” is explored in a book with no text, a novel of footnotes. And to delve straight into this book I suddenly found myself with a number of references to this literature of the No:
…the greatness of this very great poet who, out of his humble veneration of poetry, had vowed never to write a single line.
“You understand, my play for marionettes, it’s just a game, a crazy idea, I’m not writing it, I’m just imagining it,”
This is a small work, a limited work, an insignificant work, but isn’t that the point? Reality, existence aren’t they insignificant?