Milan Kundera’s first novel in over a decade was published in Italy in 2013, but only published in English in June this year. Probably best known for his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera’s latest offering has been a bestseller in Italy, Spain and the country where he is now a citizen, France.
The story revolves around four ageing male friends living in Paris who meet up intermittently in various parts of the city to ruminate about the increasing irrelevance of their lives. Ramon even applies the idea to the uselessness of brilliance when seducing a woman: “When a brilliant fellow tries to seduce a woman, she has the sense she’s entering a kind of competition. She feels obliged to shine too….insignificance sets her free.”
The sexist idea that a woman would feel it’s a burden to have to use her brain when interacting with a man was the first problem I had with this book. It would appear that the ageing Kundera’s notion of irrelevance is true about himself if his view of women is anything to go by.
The second problem I had was that what could have been an insightful summation of Kundera’s brilliant writing career became a self indulgent rant involving four old men complaining about becoming old. Ramon states “We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world…. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.”
Lastly, I had a problem with Kundera’s notion that humour ended with the toppling of Stalin in Russia, one of the most humourless characters in history, second only to the current Russian President.
Kundera could be suggesting that dark irony is the pinnacle of intelligent humour, and that joyous humour is inferior. However, Kundera redeems himself somewhat when he writes “Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence……..we must learn to love it……..the children laughing, without knowing why – isn’t that beautiful?”