Magazine | July 6, 2015, Issue

Under the Sign of the Navel

The Festival of Insignificance, by Milan Kundera (Harper, 128 pp., $23.99)

Even before he left his native Czechoslovakia in 1975 and emigrated to France, there was always something French about Milan Kundera. Like the father of modern aphorists, the Duke de La Rochefoucauld (died 1680), Kundera took pleasure in distilling higher truths about mankind into pithy, proverb-like maxims. If La Rochefoucauld wrote that “passion makes idiots of the cleverest men, and makes the biggest idiots clever,” eroticism and its discontents similarly obsessed Kundera’s male characters. Thus, from the novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979): “Oh lovers! Be careful in those dangerous first days! Once you’ve brought breakfast in bed you’ll have to bring it forever, unless you want to be accused of lovelessness and betrayal.”

It is with reflections concerning the eroticism of the navel that The Festival of Insignificance begins. Alain, one of the novel’s characters, is prompted to such reflections on an afternoon in June while walking through the Luxembourg Gardens, where he is captivated, “even disturbed,” by the sight of young girls who “showed [their] naked navel be­tween trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short.” What does it mean, he asks, when erotic orientation no longer resides in the thighs, buttocks, or breasts of the female body?

Like La Rochefoucauld, Kundera drew for his anatomizing of human behavior on personal experience of a brutal century. His “Czech” novels brought news of the fate of hundreds of millions of humans subject to a vast experiment designed to turn them into angels, without navels, without individuality. For Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the result was hell. For Kundera, life under Commu­nism was a big bureaucratic joke gone wrong. (So, here is another literary forefather, Franz Kafka, likewise a native of Kundera’s “homeland.”) Unlike left-wing intellectuals of the Cold War era, he was never seduced by utopian visions. Instead, his Czech novels made the case for the idiocy of the Communist system. The Joke, The Farewell Party, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being were written by 1984, in a time when few of us imagined that the entire structure would self-destruct anytime soon. Kundera was probably as surprised as anyone by the events of 1989. The last novel he wrote in Czech was Immortality, published in France in 1990.

The above is by way of a long preface to this very short novel, and to indicate the difference represented by it and by Kundera’s French novels generally: Slowness (1995), Identity (1998), and Ignorance (2000). By “French” I refer not only to language. The thinness of these novels, with The Festival of Insignificance the thinnest of the lot, suggests what happens when we live unburdened by the weight of ideological struggle. Are we at the end of history? Events still occur, we go through the motions of living, but does it matter? It would be more accurate and fitting with the previous three novels if this one were titled simply “Insignificance.”

Kundera’s novels, French or Czech, can be enjoyed for the sheer pleasure of the author’s literary and intellectual wit. And that wit is exercised in this novel, as in all of his works, on several levels.

First, the present-day story (narrated in the past tense) portrays in short chapters the encounters of four friends (from oldest to youngest): Ramon, Alain, Charles, and Caliban. Caliban, an unemployed actor, is the only one who is married, but occupational details and other aspects of the physical world that fill out the Czech novels are absent. Still, with hardly any specificity about Paris, aside from the Luxembourg Gardens, we recognize the advanced state of life in Western society in the 21st century. The different ages of the friends are important, as they represent different perspectives on recent history. Thus, says Ramon, whose grandfather signed with other intellectuals a petition in support of Stalin: “People meet in the course of life, they talk together, they discuss, they quarrel, without realizing that they’re talking to one another across a distance, each from an observatory standing in a different place in time.” Soviet Communism occupied intellectuals for almost a century; Caliban does not even know who Khrushchev was.

Alternating with the present-day story is a second story line that takes place in the past but is narrated in the present tense. It too consists of short chapters, in which Stalin in Joker manifestation terrorizes his Politburo associates as they sit around a large table listening to his interminable and oft-repeated stories. They never know whether his menacing stories are jokes and so sit rigidly, their bladders close to exploding, un­able to relieve themselves at the ceramic urinals supplied for their benefit, “of all colors, decorated with flower motifs, each . . . created and signed by a different artist.”

The two story lines come together at the end, with Stalin and faithful henchman Mikhail Kalinin escaping from history and traveling to the present world of the Luxembourg Gardens, where they are mistaken by the summer crowds for performance artists. Stalin, wielding a hunting rifle, blows off the nose of one of the statues of French queens, behind which Kalinin has hidden in his search for a spot in which to unload his bladder. Kundera seems to have decided to give substance to Karl Marx’s maxim: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

It is adding too much ballast to this slight confection to mention the meta-level that unites the two story lines. It occurs in the musings of the four friends about Stalin and his comrades as subjects for a marionette theater, an allusion to a philosophical essay by Heinrich von Kleist: Kleist wrote of the spontaneous harmony of the movement of marionettes, harmonious because their “existence” is guided by a master hand. Similarly, angels, a favorite Kundera trope, make their appearance here as well, at least a feather from one, in the middle of a cocktail party. Unlike angels or marionettes, humans are inharmonious, an inheritance of our break from the divine hand that created us. Attempts have been made throughout history to correct the imbalance. Success required only one thing, as Stalin tells Andrei Zhdanov, one of the puppets with whom he surrounds himself: “There are as many different representations of the world as there are individuals on the planet; and in­evitably that makes for chaos; how to bring about order in this chaos? The answer is clear: by imposing one single representation on everyone. And the only way to impose it is through one will, one single enormous will, a will that surpasses all other wills. Which I have done, as far as my powers have allowed me.”

Stalin’s dream is dead, of course, and Communism was unsuccessful in transforming men into angels, into navel-less beings, which returns us to the beginning. The buttocks, the breasts, the thighs individualize a woman, according to Alain; not so the navel. The fashion for exposed navels, appearing with the new century, has raised the blinds “that, for centuries, had kept men from seeing the essential thing: that individuality is an illusion.” Such pessimism is complemented by the weary wisdom of Ramon, just before the prankish appearance of Stalin and Kalinin in the Luxembourg Gardens: “Insignifi­cance, my friend, is the essence of existence. It is all around us, and every­where and always. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in atrocities, in bloody battles, in the worst disasters. It often takes courage to acknowledge it in such dramatic situations, and to call it by name.”

This sounds very much like the cynicism of an aphorist. By a strange accident of literary history, however, the current stage of the ideological struggle between the West and the Islamic world began with Salman Rushdie’s angel. It turns out that we are not at the end of history at all. And, more than ever, joke-telling re­mains powerful as well as deadly in the fight against idiocy.

– Elizabeth Powers is writing a book about contemporary liberalism.

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