If you have followed the work of Milan Kundera, it feels like he has been moving towards this novel his entire life.

The Festival Of Insignificance is a distilled prose poem of every theme and philosophical concern he has worried upon - identity, history, totalitarianism and, that most unfashionable of literary tropes these days, the meaning of human existence, or rather the absolute lack of meaning in an absurd world which renders meaning meaningless.

Thank God for Kundera. In Britain, at least, there is nothing like him - though perhaps a few Americans, and maybe one or two South Africans and Australians, could grace a room with him and not feel completely pygmyfied. He is not focus-grouped, pre-packaged by the publishing industry for the summer book-reading crowd. He is an old-fashioned European intellectual. Yet he has always worn his learning with lightness - though not unbearably so. He turns philosophy into anecdote and political science into comedy.

Kundera has said that irony is "the essence of the novel as art". As a stylist, he is ironic too. Only one other writer - Haruki Murakami - has the ability to wrap meditations on life, death, reality and the meaning of existence, in a style so ephemeral that it is like cobwebs between your fingers. His stories are often dream-like, and like dreams the events fade but the feeling and meaning remain forever.

Don't come to The Festival Of Insignificance for story, though the story will amuse you and distract you. Come to think, learn and wonder. Some critics have been disappointed with its slightness - a surprising position to take if they have ever read Kundera's other work. His 'plots' are just the structure upon which he hangs his thinking; his world-view from his particular 'outpost in history', as he has one of his characters say in the novel.

This is the work of an old man - the Czech émigré is now 86 - and on top of the constant Kundera themes it also has the obsessions of an old man: ageing, infirmity, memory of childhood and parents, all passed through a muslin sieve of absurdity. There's nothing bitter here, though. Even pissing your pants - quite literally - is cause for comedy. And then there is sex. There is always sex with Kundera, who has been castigated for being an exponent of the male gaze, rather than praised as an anatomist of the modern European male mind.

Kundera casts a long, imposing, and often parodied shadow, not least because of the achingly bohemian film version of his most famous work The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. But Kundera is not about black turtle necks, jazz, and drinking wine out of chipped tea cups. He is a black humorist, more in cultural synch with Camus or Beckett or Edward Albee: the world is a dark, lonely place, he says, and so the only thing to do is to laugh in its face.

Kundera's mind skips like a skimming stone over the history and culture of Europe. He jumps from Stalin, to Stalin's sidekick Kalinin, to the renaming of Konigsberg as Kaliningrad, and from there to the most famous resident of former Konigsberg, the philosopher Immanuel Kant, to present us, through a series of meandering anecdotes, with this central thought: "Kant's most important idea, comrades, is 'the thing itself' - in German, 'das ding an sich'. Kant thought that behind our representations there is something objective, a 'ding', that we cannot know but that is real nonetheless. But that idea is wrong. There is nothing real behind our representations, no 'thing in itself', no 'ding an sich'."

A professor once said that the best way to understand existentialism was to imagine yourself, standing alone, the sole human, upon the face of Planet Earth, spinning in the dark emptiness of space. To that idea, add this: you standing there alone, but laughing loudly at your own condition - and you have the Kundera view of the world.

It's taken Kundera nearly 50 years to work these themes and thoughts down to this refined offering - philosophy as prose, prose as poetry. This short work is not slight at all. In fact, this may be the great ironist's most magnificent joke: that this novella has all the bearing of many thousands of books. The joke is on those who cannot see it.