This is the first work by Milan Kundera that I have read and while I was worried that choosing a new work of his, especially one which has had such mixed reviews, was not the wisest choice when it comes to being introduced to an author, I was pleasantly surprised.
The book is far from insignificant as its pages contain a wealth of opinions about existence, individuality, will and humour. It focuses on four men in contemporary Paris, and the reader becomes privy to their thoughts about specific matters. While the reader immediately gets a sense of each character when it comes to their distinct concerns, that is about as far as character development goes in this short book. Intertwined with that, the book tells the story of Stalin and his comrades, specifically Kalinin. To say that nothing much happens would be an understatement as there is no real plot, rather the story takes place within the minds of the characters. As I thoroughly delight in such a premise, it was certainly an aspect which I liked.
The book definitely possesses a healthy dose of humour, while still focusing on serious themes. Kundera rightly shows that the best thing we can do in life, is to simply laugh at the absurdity of things and eventually come to the understanding that we are all ultimately insignificant. In a way it’s a beautiful thought because it means that we can drive away some of the worries that may make us take life too seriously. This is perhaps a reflection which Kundera has come to with age, as the older we get the more we lose the maximalism of our youth and our will to excel, and rather accept our place in life, focusing less on the abstract and more on the concrete.
While there are many interesting thoughts to be found in the book, they are found in the realm of the seemingly meaningless which makes it all the more intriguing. The example of the subplot of Stalin is the most notable, because rather than highlighting Stalin in the story, Kundera focuses on Kalinin, an unremarkable man, but one who has still had his place in history (revealed through the tale of Stalin bullying Kalinin over his problems with his bladder, but eventually naming Kaliningrad after him). This tale is really the key to understanding the book and the extent to which Kundera suggests that the insignificant is really what we should focus on in order to live our lives to the fullest;
“Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence. . .,” says Ramon. “We must love insignificance, we must learn to love it . . . in all its obviousness, in all its innocence, in all its beauty. . . . It is the key to wisdom.”
I truly enjoyed this little novel, and so would recommend it to absolutely everyone. I do admit that perhaps some of the more nuanced philosophical aspects may have escaped me slightly, but it did not lessen the impact of the book.
I give this book four out of five wine bottles.