Navel-gazing

Kundera

Milan Kundera’s latest, The Festival of Insignificance, is a short novel, pretty much a novella, that, like his other books, mixes fiction with philosophical musings and overt references to the fact that this is a novel we are reading (‘my characters’, he says at  one point). His characters are four male friends of indeterminate age, perhaps middle-aged, living in Paris, who visit the doctor, wait on guests at a party, chat over a drink, or reminisce with a dead mother. Mixed with this are anecdotes about Stalin and his offsiders, digressions into the philosophy of Hegel and Schopenhauer (though not at any length), and commentary on the navel as an object of display in the dress of young female Parisians, which may or may not be a joke playing on the concept of navel-gazing. Kundera (or his characters) also speculates on the effectiveness of jokes in a politically dark time. The writer of the publisher’s blurb for the book seems to have had trouble making any sense of it, and has virtually given up, referring back to previous novels and offering the verbal equivalent of throwing up one’s hands. But the book’s charm lies in its not taking itself too seriously. This fact seems to have put some reviewers off, but rather than the more straight-forward or furiously pedalling American or British novel, it is of the distinctly European style that sees everyday subject matter as a perfectly worthy vehicle for humour, invention and rumination.

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