Stalin’s Laughter

Milan Kundera, The Festival of Insignificance. Translated by Linda Asher, Harper 2015.

In Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev you can find a story of how Stalin once boasted about his hunting feats among his associates. He went hunting and saw 24 partridges in a tree. He decided to shoot them all, but as bad luck would have it, he had only 12 rounds of ammunition. So he killed half of the birds, went home for spare bullets, returned under the tree in a few hours and massacred the remaining dozen.

Khrushchev and other men did not quite know how to react to this unlikely story. Only in the restrooms Khrushchev reportedly howled with rage: “He lied, he lied!” His companions, “washing their hands in the sink”, were spitting with contempt. It didn’t even occur to any of them that the host was simply joking. “For no one around knew any more what a joke was,”—this is how a protagonist of Milan Kundera’s most recent mini-novel comments on this strange story.

The Festival of Irrelevance is a hundred pages long meditation on Stalin’s anecdote, quoted above. The Soviet leader is joking, but none of his listeners can appreciate the joke. Kalinin (the guy who gave his name to Kaliningrad) is only thinking about making it to the toilet in time (for he has chronic incontinence problems). Stalin knows about it—Stalin knows everything—so deliberately, as a hoax, he is prolonging his story. So successfully, that the unfortunate Kalinin wets his pants.

Kundera has always had a penchant for scatological humor. Satisfying (or the inability to satisfy in the right place and time) physiological needs plays an important role in many of his works. In the Unbearable Lightness of Being Stalin’s son, a prisoner of war, flings himself against high-voltage wires unable to bear humiliating remarks of British officers, outraged by the low level of personal hygiene exhibited by their comrade in captivity. The female protagonist of The Joke swallows a laxative by mistake while attempting a suicide. A writer’s female friend (Encounter) gets diarrhea when she learns about the discovery of the communist secret police that she let him sign his horoscopes, written to earn him a living, with her name (and he gets an erection, listening to the noise of flushing water from behind the bathroom door). Yes, Kundera will never surprise us anymore. But we should note that his last book is downright prudish. (Except for the introductory meditation on female buttocks—attractive, for promising the shortest way to the goal, “a goal made all the more enticing by its duality.”)

Kundera’s book is iconoclastic in another respect. A few years ago the famous Russian novelist Viktor Yerofeyev wrote the novel The Good Stalin. Its protagonist was the author’s father, a Russian diplomat and in his youth Stalin’s personal interpreter. Despite the title, it was not an apology of the “Kremlin highlander,” but a (successful) attempt at making a reckoning with the world in which Stalin was God.

Milan Kundera (born 1929) is an epigone of that world, one of its last living witnesses. And there is something moving in the fact that in the book, which perhaps is his farewell to readers, he humanizes the God of his youth. In the novel’s finale Stalin, in hunting guise, is chasing Kalinin with a shotgun. And sprays him with buckshot in front of surprised walkers in Parisian Luxembourg Gardens. “Pissing in the most famous French park is strictly prohibited!” exclaims Stalin. And bursts out laughing, “and the laughter is so merry, so free, so contagious, so innocent, so plebeian, so fraternal, that everyone around also begins to laugh with relief.”

The crowd, witnesses of the writer’s phantasmagoria, take the man-eater and his minion for unemployed actors moonlighting as performance artists. “Both these guys are brilliant,” says the protagonist, “Unemployed […]. They want to be active.” The same fate, unemployment, befell his friend Caliban. This actor, moonlighting as a waiter at parties, once invented a non-existent language for a joke and since that time he pretends that he doesn’t know a single word in French. But his artificial language does not impress anyone. Caliban, just like Stalin, is an “actor without audience,” a prisoner of a joke which no one recognized as such. Therefore he must willy-nilly pretend to be a foreigner, for otherwise he would be exposed as a fraud.

The only exorcism which would allow him to reject and definitively bury his false identity could be the “merry, free, contagious, innocent, plebeian, fraternal” laughter of Stalin. In the last scene the Generalissimo and his lackey with a pointed beard (Kalinin), like Jacques the Fatalist and his master (not those from Diderot’s novel, but from its stage version, written by Kundera after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia), climb into a carriage, “for the last time greet the audience, which is thrilled and waving hands, while a children choir is singing ‘Marseillaise.’” Then they slowly drift away through the streets of Paris—to nowhere. For the end of ideology and utopia is also a festival of irrelevance, when all choices turned out to be equally barren and all roads purposeless.

In a world where people no longer know what a joke is, they also don’t know what deserves to be regarded as serious. Caliban does not know who Khrushchev was (although perhaps he is only joking, because only a few pages earlier he reacted with surprise at the sight of the former Secretary-General’s Memoirs on the table in the apartment of his friend Alain—if he really did not know who Khrushchev was, he would not have been surprised). And Alain’s girl, Madeleine, “maybe once heard something about Stalin.”

All this no longer has any meaning. The era of jokes was replaced by the era of irrelevance. The past is speaking a language that nobody understands. The language of Caliban. This is an interesting theme of the novel—such an artificial language, with an elaborate grammar and extensive vocabulary, was invented in the late Khrushchev era by a student of the Prague Polytechnic Ivan Havel, who called it ptydepe. This language was used in a blockbuster theatre play Announcement (1965) by his brother Václav, later to become a dissident and president. Kundera appreciated this play, he regarded it as the most mature work of his younger colleague. “These plays showed a world were words have no meaning, or have a different meaning than they seem to have, or they have become a veil behind which reality disappeared,” he wrote in 1979. By then Havel was already in prison, and Kundera had emigrated to France. Both Havel’s heroic stance and Kundera’s émigré writings had the same source—the desire to recover the meaning and sense of our own existence. Paradoxically, it was also the source of their sense of humor.

So the main hero of Kundera’s last novel probably is Meaning, wandering around the world like Voltaire’s Candide; Meaning for which you can die and kill. In the life of the novel’s characters (who, by the way, are aware that they are only Kundera’s invention) nothing has meaning. To get an ersatz meaning, one of them untruthfully tells the people around him that he suffers from an incurable disease. Another is immersed in agonizing ruminations about his mother, who abandoned him when he was a child (this part of the novel was published by Kundera a few weeks ago in the form of a short story called The Apologiser in the New Yorker).

All this in vain. In their world the only way to overcome the everyday routine are (like in pagan Greece) weekend orgies (this genuine festival of irrelevance for the societies of Western civilization).

According to Kundera the symbol of this world and of this change is the fashion, started in the beginning of our millennium, for walking around with an exposed nave. ”You’ll recognize the beloved buttocks among hundreds of others. But it is impossible to identify the women you love by their navels. All navels are similar,” says one of the characters. “Under this sign we are all, without exception, soldiers of sex and every single one of us is contemplating not a beloved woman, but a small hole in the belly […], which says nothing about the woman possessing it, it says something about which this woman is not.”

This something is “of course, the fetus.” Kundera’s characters are in mortal fear of reproduction, generally they do not have children, and if they do, they are bad parents or they abandon their offspring. Okay, but what does it have to do with Stalin? Well, the dissidents in the Soviet Union and other Communist Bloc countries discovered that self-sacrifice was a way of rescuing one’s individuality. They rotted in gulags and prisons, they often paid for their behavior with their lives, but they definitely endowed these lives with a meaning. Kundera’s characters perceive such an attitude as an illusion, which Havel interpreted as an expression of Kundera’s personal discouragement with communism. Kundera consistently rejected the role of a dissident, seeing it as a threat of ultimate politicization of his existence (by the way, another great Czech writer, Bohumil Hrabal, was of the same opinion).

Frankly speaking, Havel had no other biography than the political and intellectual one. Kundera preferred not to have any biography at all. Rejecting all commitments, both in public life (for example politics), and in private life (for example starting a family), although tempting, is nothing other than an expression of the loss of faith in any ontological order, Platonic, Christian or Communist (also in the West—after all, a grandfather of one of the characters wrote praises of Stalin in Paris).

From this point of view Kundera’s most recent book may be seen as belonging to the genre of literature settling accounts with the Communist past, just like his earlier—best—novels.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.