Saturday, 12 September 2015

Have you heard of Milan Kundera?

Full title: The Festival of Insignificance
Author: Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 115 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Harper (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Milan Kundera is 86 years old this year. Before publishing The Festival of Insignificance he hadn’t published a single book in 13 years. The communist realities he used to write about have turned into memories so distant you can’t even scare kids with them anymore.
One may or may not ignore these facts. If one doesn’t, one is likely to go on reading this novel so as to enjoy it. If one does, though, one will certainly make the mistake of expecting to find in it the Kundera of a few years back, when he was writing book after book with ease, and most importantly, when what he was writing about mattered to the world.
The first and most important impression I had from reading The Festival of Insignificance was that Kundera wrote it being aware that all of the above were problematic things. And he wrote so as to lay some traps. But traps that have gone, with the occasional exception, largely unnoticed.
The novel is about four friends who get together at a party thrown by a fifth man, who doesn’t quite sit well in their company but who offers them the right pretext for their meeting. In counterbalance, the novel also follows an episode involving Stalin, Khrushchev, and Kalinin. Present and past, France and the Soviet Union, friendship and comradeship, freedom and tyranny – these are trademark things in Kundera literature.
But it’s the question of insignificance that makes the book what it is, from title onward. Stalin lost in the usual (for Kundera) game of memory and forgetting, the queens of France immortalized as statues barely acknowledged in the Luxembourg Gardens; references to Hegel and Kant that lead nowhere; a party that doesn’t acquire anything of note. All these episodes and images form a collection of insignificant things. But this is not the insignificance of daily life, where a lot gets lost in a sea of small significances. On the contrary, we’re in the territory of historical insignificance, where things, when put in perspective, are likely to mean little. That’s why, perhaps, the most important episode of the novel is the party thrown by a man who pretends he’s about to die of cancer. His lie is in itself a question of individual significance. His party, a question of social insignificance. That party is placed against another one, in which Stalin tells an anecdote about some partridges he shot when he was young. This one is even closer to the essential questions regarding significance: when the world was a mess, with the Stalinist regime at a peak, what his acolytes find important is the truthfulness of his anecdote; not reality (the history before their eyes) but fiction (a reality from an uncertain, highly insignificant past). Stalin tells his acolytes how one day in his youth, when out hunting, he saw twenty four partridges perched on a tree. He aimed to shoot but realized he had only twelve bullets. So when he shot, only half of the partridges fell to the ground. He rode back home and came back a few hours later with twelve more rounds, and shot the rest of the birds. His attendants listen to the story and, in the spirit of the Stalinist cult, fake admiration. But when they’re alone, in the toilets built especially for them in the Kremlin, they express their outrage. They are enraged by the story. They find it ridiculous as well as cruel. But all things considered, nobody sees the joke in Stalin’s anecdote. And as Kundera suggests through his novel, one requires historical perspective to be able to see the obvious. It’s only years later, in Paris, when the four friends discuss the Stalin episode, that the essence surfaces:
“After a pause, Caliban says: ‘The one thing I find unbelievable in that whole story is that nobody understood that Stalin was joking.'
‘Of course not,’ said Charles, and he laid the book back on the table. ‘Because nobody around him any longer knew what a joke is. And in my view, that’s the beginning of a whole new period in history.’”
The period Charles is talking about is later described as “the twilight of joking,” or better still, “the post-joke age.”
One needs to read this time-after-the-joke knowing Kundera, because with this book he makes statements about himself. These statements are hidden. They need to be found if one wants to read the book adequately.
The insistence throughout the novel on the fact that the new generations don’t know who Stalin was, that they’ve never heard of Kant or Hegel – all this is self-referential. Behind these suggestions lies the actual question: have you heard of Milan Kundera? It’s like a little piece of bait thrown to the critics. Is it not?
“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.”
I’m not sure that the critics have seen this. When I first read the passage, as though it were about Stalin, I thought: okay, this must be Kundera being nostalgic (at the end of the day he started his career as an enthusiastic supporter of the communist cause). But reading it again I changed my mind. This is not about Stalin. This is about Kundera himself. Read it again through this filter and you’ll see.

Milan Kundera. Source: RTE
Some reviewers have expressed their discontent. They didn’t like the style of the novel, they didn’t like its lack of newness. But at the same time they didn’t see the joke: Kundera putting himself into the book, one character among the others (not only among the French friends in contemporary Paris, but also as a participant at the Soviet meetings, back in the Stalinist era). As the center of a joke, he becomes the center of the very age when the right allusion (the essence of a punch line) is no longer at hand; when the joke itself needs to be dug out of history, dusted, polished, and told again.
There are other clues in the novel that point in the same direction. One of them is the metanarrative element: the intervention of the narrative voice at random points in the story, and also the characters’ awareness that they are mere characters, that there is a “master” (they use that word a couple of times!) who handles them as if they were marionettes (see above). All this is about Kundera himself, can’t you see it? Arrows pointing back at him, as if in saying I’m here, it’s me you’re reading about. Precisely because he’s used these techniques so many times before it becomes, once more, important to see that The Festival of Insignificance is mostly about something characteristic to his work, something about him.
I don’t know why the reviewers avoid discussing these things. The narrative elements, the games played under the surface of the actual story, the references to things that are not there. Is that because they’re stuck in the insignificance of Kundera’s old age, the insignificance (in 2015) of his past, the insignificance, of course, of his present? Of the fact that this is, perhaps, his last book? And of the other, more significant thing: that maybe he wrote it knowing that this might be his last book? If such is the case then let’s read The Festival of Insignificance again. Let’s read it as if it were a book of ill laughter and of un-forgetting.