Milan Kundera begins his new novel, The Festival of Insignificance, with an unusual philosophical query — why are belly buttons so sexy right now? Or, as Mr. Kundera writes in more erudite language, underscoring the absurdity of his question, “how to define the eroticism of a man (or an era) that sees female seductive power as centered in the middle of the body, in the navel?”
This inquiry comes after Alain, the first character introduced, meditates on the meanings of erotic fixations of different eras: thighs, buttocks, and breasts. Finally, Alain concludes that while those three body parts are unique to each woman, all navels look the same. And thus, our era has lost a certain celebration of individuality.
Directly after Kundera introduces this belly button query, he inserts a scene about another man torn between desire to attend a Marc Chagall show and repulsion at the thought of becoming “part of that endless queue” outside the museum, suffering from overcrowded galleries where “bodies and chatter would obscure the paintings.” Here, he exemplifies the tension between an individual and a group. Not only does a group prohibit this individual’s access to art, but also the individual’s enjoyment of art, should he enter the museum. Art and sexuality, once sacred and individual pleasures, have lost some of their potency and become banal elements of a mainstream popular culture.
It’s a bleak assessment of contemporary life from an author with over 80 years of experience in the world. Yet, it’s Kundera writing it, not your grandfather, so it’s more poignant, surreal, and funny than the typical line of thought that begins something like, “In my day, milk cost less than a dollar and English professors could still get jobs.” In seven short, loosely-connected chapters, the author writes of the trials and tribulations of four aging male friends (Alain, Ramon, Charles, and Caliban) as they move among the Paris streets, attend a party, and share an extended joke about Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev.
The novel most deeply explores the generational divide as it details Alain’s relationship with Madeleine, a young woman many years his junior:
Even the dialogue between two lovers, if their birth dates are too far apart, is only the intertwining of two monologues, each holding for the other much that is not understood. That was why, for instance, he never knew if the reason Madeleine twisted the names of the past was that she had never heard of them or that she was parodying them on purpose, to make clear to everyone that she was not the least bit interested in anything that had happened before her own lifetime.
The narrator suggests an unbridgeable gap between generations. How can a man (say, Kundera), who was at one time a member of the Communist Party, became partly involved in the Prague Spring, and is now living in exile, write something that will make any sense to a millennial (say, me), an American who was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall and now receives much of my news in 140 characters? It’s certainly a depressing thought for those of us who want to believe that some human experiences — love, grief, joy, pain — transcend generations.
Yet, it’s also notable that Madeleine is either unaware of — or isn’t interested in — anything that happened before she was born, that the older man has chosen someone totally preoccupied with the present and future, who chooses to be ignorant. The affair becomes a way for Alain to both forget and escape the past, to dwell in conversations that amount only to insignificance.
Another character, Caliban, meets a maid who develops an interest in him after learning that he speaks neither of the languages (French or Portuguese) in which she’s able to converse. He does, in fact, speak French, but he has told people that he only speaks Pakistani. The two speak to each other in their own languages without hope of ever being understood. When they do speak, it’s of trivialities, like the maid’s choice in lipstick colors. In a variation on the same theme, Kundera introduces a character named Quaquelique who seduces women by making banal remarks that demand “no intelligent response whatever.” He’s quite successful.
It all seems like a cop out. There’s something cowardly about choosing a romantic partner with whom you’ll never have a meaningful conversation. Instead of devoting themselves to romantic relationships, these characters choose partners with whom they’re literally and figuratively speaking in a different language. It’s certainly a shift from the characters in Kundera’s most famous work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who seek love and immerse themselves in complex affairs. As a reader, it’s more difficult to invest in the new characters of The Festival of Insignificance and their partners when they are only interested in attachments that are ultimately insignificant. They don’t care, so it’s difficult for the reader to care.
So, in this novel that suggests that art, sexuality, and love have all lost their power in the 21st century, is there any redemption at all?
In a small line, the narrator explicitly reveals what he does value among the trivialities in our lives, our individual festivals of insignificance. “In my unbeliever’s dictionary, only one word is sacred: ‘friendship,’” he says. This line holds promise for an explanation of friendship, its merits, and the reasons why it trumps all other human relationships. The reader might expect Kundera, in his own masterful way, to raise questions about the nature of friendship and platonic love in the way he contemplates contemporary life and attitudes toward sexuality and art.
Kundera doesn’t deliver. Instead of exploring what brought these men together and makes their relationship work, he focuses instead on those relationships that hold no significance. The readers hear the friends’ witty conversations and witness their rogue activities, but never much more. In its own twisted logic, the novel asserts that the insignificant is actually significant and worthy of its own narrative. But for the reader looking for four fully developed characters, a clear picture of what makes the bond between them so “sacred,” and some questioning of human interactions, it’s not fulfilling.
It’s a shame. Kundera has written novels that raise complicated questions about political ideology and human interaction while engaging with fraught historical conflicts. Yet with this new installment, he seems to reject the more thoughtful approach and substitute it for this short work about what doesn’t matter. Sure, he ends with a lyrical appreciation of “the value of insignificance,” but it doesn’t satisfy. At the conclusion of the novel, Ramon gives a monologue in which he states, “Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence.” The way that Kundera structures the novel, it seems to call for some final, conclusive speech. Here it is! The narrator teases. You wanted a pearl of wisdom, and this is it!
The narrator also mocks those readers looking for something more substantial. Another character outside of the core friend group, D’Ardelo, says nothing when Ramon makes this proclamation about insignificance. The narrator states, “Ramon understands that his hymn to insignificance has not succeeded in pleasing this man so attached to the gravity of grand truths.” Ramon disparages D’Ardelo for his earnestness. To appease him, Ramon tells him that he looked beautiful next to a woman at a party.
At fewer than 150 pages, The Festival of Insignificance is a breezy read that just might prove to be insignificant within Kundera’s larger oeuvre. The book contains a multitude of ideas, some more satisfactorily detailed than others. The thing about belly buttons, though, is that they don’t all look the same. Just ask the piercer at your local tattoo parlor. And if you think they do, you just might not be looking hard enough. Alain’s conclusion is based on a fallacy, and his initial question, too, is based on a premise that isn’t quite believable — I still have yet to meet a man, millennial or otherwise, who prefers belly buttons to buttocks, thighs, or breasts. Perhaps, after all, there is still hope for this era, for individual experience, and for lives of some significance.