Bear­able small­ness of be­ing

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - DAVID L. ULIN BOOK CRITIC

There’s not much to Mi­lan Kun­dera’s 10th novel, “The Fes­ti­val of In­signif­i­cance” — his first work of fic­tion since 2000’s “In­no­cence” — but then that’s part of the point. Re­volv­ing around five mid­dle-aged friends living in Paris, it of­fers not a nar­ra­tive so­much as a col­lec­tion of vignettes, or re­flec­tions: the novel as a set of asides.

“Time moves on,” one of Kun­dera’s char­ac­ters tells us. “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 wit­nesses now, any ac­tual rec­ol­lec­tion, they be­come mar­i­onettes.”

This, of course — the is­sue of mean­ing in the face of hu­man van­ity — has long been at the cen­ter of Kun­dera’s work. His first novel, “The Joke,” pub­lished in Cze­choslo­vakia in 1967, de­scribes in part the fall­out from a satir­i­cal post­card (“OP­TI­MISM IS THE OPIUM OF THE PEO­PLE!” it de­clares. “THE HEALTHY AT­MOS­PHERE STINKS! LONG LIVE TROT­SKY!”) sent by a Czech stu­dent to a young woman he wishes to se­duce: hu­mor that can­not be read as hu­mor, in other words.

A sim­i­lar theme mo­ti­vates “The Fes­ti­val of In­signif­i­cance,” which also traf­fics in jokes, or more ac­cu­rately, in our in­abil­ity to re­spond to jokes any­more. “We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer pos­si­ble to over­turn this world nor re­shape it, nor hold off its danger­ous head­long rush,” a char­ac­ter named Ra­mon ex­plains at a Paris cock­tail party. “There’s only one pos­si­ble re­sis­tance: to not take it se­ri­ously. But I think our jokes have lost their power.”

Ra­mon is talk­ing to a friend named Cal­iban, af­ter the Shake­speare char­ac­ter; Cal­iban likes to pre­tend he is Pak­istani, speak­ing an in­vented lan­guage of non­sense syl­la­bles. And yet this only makes Kun­dera’s case, for what once might have been a sur­re­al­ist pu­ton, a bit of per­sonal per­for­mance art, now comes loaded with risk.

“If some ser­vant to truth should dis­cover that you’re French!” Ra­mon con­tin­ues. “Then of course you’ll be sus­pect! He’ll think you must have some shady rea­son to be hid­ing your iden­tity! He’ll alert the po­lice! You’ll be in­ter­ro­gated! You’ll ex­plain that your Pak­istani char­ac­ter was a joke. They’ll laugh at you: What a stupid alibi! You must cer­tainly have been up to no good! They’ll put you in hand­cuffs!” Jok­ing, he concludes, “has be­come danger­ous. … It re­ally was the start of a new era. The twi­light of jok­ing! The post-joke age!”

That Kun­dera has his tongue half in his cheek is part of the charm: Look at all those breath­less ex­cla­ma­tion marks. At the same time, he is com­pletely se­ri­ous, as he has al­ways been, about the folly of our machi­na­tions, po­lit­i­cal or oth­er­wise.

It’s tempt­ing to re­gard Kun­dera as apo­lit­i­cal, de­spite his long Parisian ex­ile. (He aban­doned Cze­choslo­vakia for France in 1975.) But that’s an over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, for in works such as “The Book of Laugh­ter and For­get­ting” and “The Un­bear­able Light­ness of Be­ing,” he pi­o­neered a sen­si­bil­ity framed around larger no­tions of lib­er­a­tion and free­dom, us­ing sex­ual pol­i­tics as a metaphor for af­fairs of state.

“What seemed to be po­lit­i­cal fa­nati­cism,” he writes in the for­mer novel, “was only an ex­cuse, a para­ble, a man­i­festo of fidelity, a coded plaint of un­re­quited love.” It’s a bril­liant move, not only for its sheer sub­ver­sive power — cri­tiquing a gov­ern­ment in terms it does not rec­og­nize — but also for its un­der­stand­ing of de­sire as es­sen­tial, equally, to pol­i­tics and ar­dor.

In “The Fes­ti­val of In­signif­i­cance,” Kun­dera ex­trap­o­lates such a sen­si­bil­ity to our ter­ror-be­sot­ted world. This is not to say the new book of­fers com­men­tary, ex­actly; that would be far too great a weight for this thin and in­ten­tion­ally in­con­se­quen­tial novel to bear. “Only from the heights of an in­fi­nite good mood,” the au­thor writes in th­ese pages, quot­ing Hegel, “can you ob­serve be­low you the eter­nal stu­pid­ity of me, and laugh over it.” That has been his pur­pose, or one of them, all along.

In that sense, “The Fes­ti­val of In­signif­i­cance” of­fers both a con­tin­u­a­tion of Kun­dera’s sig­na­ture in­ves­ti­ga­tions and a re­ac­tion to the tox­i­c­ity of the present day. It’s not a bril­liant book; Kun­dera, 86, hasn’t writ­ten a bril­liant book since 1986’s “The Art of the Novel,” which traces an al­ter­na­tive tra­di­tion of fic­tion, what we might call the anti­novel, with roots in the work of Lau­rence Sterne and De­nis Diderot.

“I of­ten hear it said that the novel has ex­hausted all its pos­si­bil­i­ties,” Kun­dera as­serted in 1985. “I have the op­po­site im­pres­sion: dur­ing its 400-year his­tory, the novel has missed many of its pos­si­bil­i­ties; it has left many great op­por­tu­ni­ties un­ex­plored, many paths forgotten, calls un­heard.”

This is the ter­ri­tory from which “The Fes­ti­val of In­signif­i­cance” op­er­ates, which means the most use­ful way to read it may be as an epi­logue. It is slight, in­ci­den­tal, a book in which lit­tle hap­pens: a cock­tail party, some un­re­quited long­ing, a bit of hu­mor. Still, it is com­pelling in its small way.

Among the novel’s run­ning mo­tifs is a story Joseph Stalin used to tell about his prow­ess as a hunter, re­cast here as (yes) a joke. The joke, how­ever, is on Stalin, since he is now among “the old dead,” a point Kun­dera makes ex­plicit by imag­in­ing him trans­planted to con­tem­po­rary Paris, where he goes un­rec­og­nized. Mar­i­onettes again, an­other mo­tif of the novel, a re­minder of how lit­tle ev­ery­thing counts. Or, as Ra­mon sug­gests in the closing pages: “In­signif­i­cance, my friend, is the essence of ex­is­tence.”

Catherine Helie / Gallimard / Harper

MI­LAN KUN­DERA’S

new book, “The Fes­ti­val of In­signif­i­cance,” con­tin­ues his in­ves­ti­ga­tions and reacts to present-day tox­i­c­ity.

HarperCollins

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