Milan Kundera writes in French nowadays, and the people he writes about are as French as the language used to describe them. But he has not lost the whimsical Czech sensibility of his earlier works. His characters are still uncertain as to why they exist or whether it was entirely fair of their author to invent them. Kundera is one of those modern writers – Beckett is another – whose protagonists are not really detachable from the words on the page. They flicker on the paper like shadows cast by the syntax. They live in dreams of their own, and their interest lies not in what they do but in what they might have done had their creator offered them a story.
Kundera has an inimitable lightness of touch; he avoids literary effect and respects the residues of meaning that accumulate in ordinary things. These features of his style succeed somehow in persuading the reader that his characters are true to the strange but harmless emptiness of the world we live in now. The Festival of Insignificance announces this theme in its title. It describes a handful of characters who coincide at a birthday party, which was to be a final birthday party, except that the host’s cancer scare proved to be unfounded.
Alain, whose narrative opens the book, is obsessed with navels – the navels that young girls now expose to public view,