Book review – The Festival of Insignificance

feast of insignificance

The Festival of Insignificance (c) Milan Kundera, 2013

Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence.” – translated excerpt from ‘La fête de l’insignifiance’.

Milan Kundera is not a typical novelist.

People tend to frown when they hear such a statement, but it’s the honest truth. Kundera writes novels centering round ideas and thoughts, rather than characters and/or events.

Most times the characters/ events are even secondary to his novels, being merely used as vehicles to explore the author’s fascination with existentialist themes affecting the contemporary world.

I don’t know about you, but I have trouble remembering his characters mere days after finishing one of his books. As for the themes discussed and dissected in them though, these stay with me forever. No joke, I can quote entire meditative rambling sections of ‘Immortality’ even though I read the damn book almost a decade ago (…and I doubt I’m the only one).

Kundera’s books are food for the mind. Nutritious, and oh so addictive mental food, that will leave you craving for more. You will devour his entire oeuvre with gusto and find yourself screaming at the end: “Where have these books been all my life?!”

He has this unique way of addressing serious and not so serious issues through a mixture of fantasy and realism that although not necessarily sounding believable to the reader, are written in such a way that makes them widely acceptable and peculiarly appealing.

Kundera plays around successfully with irony, and satire, and humor like few other authors do. His books are highly original, unmistakably unique, mind-boggling thought-provoking and for the life of me, I do not understand why the man hasn’t been awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature yet!!! Come on people, the man is in his 80s. He’s not getting any younger!

Well, maybe ‘The Festival of Insignificance’ will fall on the Nobel committee’s good graces this year. Published in 2013, Kundera’s first novel in over 10 years is, let’s face it though, not exactly a novel. ‘The Festival of Insignificance’ is too short to be properly deemed one after all (even though it’s being marketed as a novel pretty much everywhere).

It’s more the length of a novella really, and even though it is every bit Kundera-ish in style, it is not the author’s best work to date, although perhaps I’m being judgmental due to its diminutive length, because for novella standards, it’s actually a lovely and aesthetically well accomplished book.

‘The Festival of Insignificance’ is the short tale of four friends living in Paris: Alain, Ramon, Charles and Caliban (Caliban is just a nickname, by the way) and of their often amusing attempt at rationalizing the world surrounding them, while coming to terms with the ultimate insignificance of life, love and politics.

In true Kundera fashion, reality and fantasy go hand and hand throughout the novella, and it’s likely that after reading about Alain’s vivid conjectures regarding his estranged mother’s past life, Stalin’s (yes, the Joseph Stalin) dissertations to his fellow comrades on the power that will and representations have in setting order in the world, and Charles’ make-believe ‘marionette’ play illustrating mankind’s shallow and trivial driven lives, you’ll find yourself questioning whether you’re reading about a series of dream sequences, or actual events taking place in the fictional story. Granted, the plot can seem a bit confusing at times, but its quirkiness is what makes ‘The Festival of Insignificance’ such a fun read.

The novella is divided into seven short parts, all of which are themselves divided into small sections/ chapters, each depicting an idea or particular thought the author wished the reader to focus on.

The chapters jump from one friend to the other in a subtle connective way, but the four friends are at times forced to abdicate center stage, so that Kundera can resort to a different vehicle (character) to convey yet another type of idea (e.g.  Quaquelique and the triviality of love conquests).

Every theme presented in the novella has immense potential for development, but truth be told, we never really get to experience that potential to the max, and even though the general conclusion to the story is satisfactory, it still falls a bit short of what Kundera has presented to his readers in the past.

In that sense, rather than a standalone piece of fiction, I prefer to view ‘The Festival of Insignificance’ as an introduction (or should I say epilogue?) to Kundera’s body of work as a writer. Kundera is there in every page of the novella, but we just don’t get to dive into his brilliant mind as deep as in his other fictional works (even if we nevertheless end up being awarded with some amazing glimpses into his genius throughout it).

+: It’s a freaking Kundera book! What else is there to say? The man could find existentialist significance in a grocery list if he wanted to, and his arguments regarding it would be so amazing, we’d all nod in agreement. He’s that good!
-: Not going to lie though. After a decade’s worth of silence, I was expecting something slightly different. Still, I’m infinitely grateful for ‘The Festival of Insignificance’. It’s always a pleasure reading about what goes on inside Milan Kundera’s mind.

Where to buy online (Portuguese translation): http://www.fnac.pt/A-Festa-da-Insignificancia-Milan-Kundera/a814309

Where to buy online (English translation): http://www.bookdepository.com/Festival-Insignificance-Milan-Kundera/9780571316465

Publisher: D. Quixote
Format: Paperback – 159 pages
ISBN: 978-972-20-5598-7
Original language: French

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