Saturday, July 04, 2015

“The Festival of Insignificance” by Milan Kundera – Exploring Emptiness

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera - book cover
The more you go back towards the beginning of his career, the more you'll notice that Milan Kundera's novels had more and more of a concrete purpose and structure to them. However, as you go further down the line towards the modern days, it seems his works have gone more and more into the vague territory of philosophies and out-of-the-box meditations on the many questions that have plagued him throughout life.

One can argue that with his most recent book, The Festival of Insignificance, Kundera has achieved what he's been aiming for, in that he created a book without an overtly serious element to it, but one which nevertheless covers heftier and more serious topics. This book doesn't really follow any rules, nor does it have a concrete structure or a story with specific goals. Rather, it has a cast of very unique and strange characters, a cast he puts through various events and has eventually meeting with each other.

That cast includes Alain whose life turned him into a walking tragedy, Ramon who lives only for his love of visual arts and disdain for museum queues, Charles who has the eccentric dream of making his own marionette theatre, and Caliban who devised an entirely new language for the sole purpose of hiding his thoughts from others. In addition to that we have Quaqeulique, a shy and quiet womanizer, and Narcissus, whose behaviour matches his name perfectly.

Now, I know that on the surface this has the makings of a riveting and side-splitting story, but to be fair, very little, if anything dramatic occurs. This book isn't about the actions of the characters or perhaps even the events they go through; it's about all the descriptions and the tiniest of details that help make up the construct of their minds as well as that of the bizarre world they seem to be living in. As we get better and better acquainted with them their stories and lives seem like they turn into reflections on various topics in life, seemingly drawn from a hat they are so random.

This is one of those books where the enjoyment really depends on whether or not you're in the right mood and if you're prepared to put some effort into reading, analyzing and interpreting the pages. There is a whole lot of food for thought for those willing to find it, but to be honest, it feels like some of the philosophies he touches on have already been extensively covered or should perhaps be classified as conclusions most people come to sooner or later. Nevertheless, Kundera certainly isn't an intellectual amateur and has plenty of interesting insight to offer about life... but once again, only to those willing to dig through the bizarre, mesmerizing vagueness to find it.

All in all, The Festival of Insignificance is an interesting literary exercise, one where Milan Kundera runs wild with his desire to be significantly insignificant. If you like your books to have a concrete structure, characters, setting and story, then I'd recommend you avoid this as the nebulous approach taken certainly isn't for everyone. On the other hand though, if you don't mind your novels to be more on the slow and abstract side of things and are prepared to put in the mental work, then I recommend you give the book a shot.

Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera is a Czech writer who has been living in exile in France since 1975. His books have earned him international acclaim, with some of his better-known works including The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality. Amongst many prizes he was awarded the 1985 Jerusalem Prize and the 2000 Herder Prize.

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