Forgotten tyrants and blatant belly buttons have equally playful roles in this deceptively slight, whimsically thoughtful tale of a few men in Paris not doing or saying much.
The sight of young women with exposed navels in the Luxembourg Gardens sets Alain to musing “on the different sources of feminine seductiveness.” Not far away, Ramon avoids a Chagall show because of the long line. D’Ardelo, whose medical tests reveal he doesn’t have cancer after all, nonetheless lies when he meets Ramon in the park and says he does. A man seduces a woman with banal remarks because brilliance challenges her to compete, “whereas insignificance sets her free.” Stalin enters the narrative by way of a biography of Khrushchev given to Charles, who tells a visiting Ramon that “our master” provided it. The master is the narrator or author, whose intrusions resonate with Charles’ desire to use the Khrushchev story in a marionette theater. The Stalin thread opens with a bad joke about his bagging 24 partridges on a hunt, a story derided by Khrushchev and others over the urinals they share. (Scholars may reference the latrine fouled by Stalin’s son in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) Charles, Ramon, and Alain discuss how the monstrous Stalin has faded from memory. But the narrative recalls an official named Kalinin, a “poor innocent puppet” in Stalin’s government, who has a weak bladder. He and the tyrant reappear late in the book, shooting and urinating in the Luxembourg Gardens before driving off in a small carriage drawn by two ponies. Art, sex, disease, history, and friendship are lightly treated themes woven through scenes whose significance may be partly the disproving of a concern raised in Kundera’s Ignorance, that “emigration causes artists to lose their creativity.” But does the Czech-born writer who’s lived in France for years truly believe, at age 86, that insignificance is “the essence of existence”?
This strangely amusing novella has the power to inspire serious efforts to find significance in the very book in which it is so perversely denied.