Alain, one of the primary and central characters in the novel, walking down a Paris street, contemplates and philosophises about the different parts of a woman’s body and their powers of seduction. While he comes up with an explanation for their thighs, buttocks, and breasts, he fails to grasp the mystery behind the seductive power of their navel, located in the middle of the body. About the same time, Ramon strolls around in the Luxembourg Gardens but is reluctant to join the tedious queue to see the Chagall paintings that were on exhibit. He feels rather happy walking among the sculptures of famous poets, painters and scientists in the park. He feels calm and soothed at the indifference with which the strollers passed by the sculptures, and he breaks into a happy smile. Ramon then encounters D’Ardelo, a colleague at an anonymous Institute. They talk of a certain Madame Franck who has recently lost her husband. D’Ardelo enumerates how boldly she faced the death of her partner and how she suffered through the process, but also points out her strength of character and love for life in the way she was merry again very soon after her partner’s death. Then, having talked to Ramon about a party he intends to arrange for his birthday, D’Ardelo feigns having cancer, a cancer that can be treated no longer. They bid farewell to each other, but D’Ardelo fails to understand the reason for the lie. He does not feel ashamed of it, rather, he is pleased. He laughs and takes pleasure in his good mood.
Ramon pays a visit to his friend Charles and talks about the cocktail party they are to organise with Caliban, their friend. But before they can progress with the story of ‘the twenty four partridges’ in the book ‘Memoirs of Nikita Krushchev’, they talk about an old womaniser friend, Quaquelique. Ramon illustrates the essential difference between D’Ardelo and Quaquelique by pointing out how convoluted and sophisticated D’Ardelo is with his jokes and conversations, while Quaquelique, on the other hand, is more banal, and therefore more comfortable to be around.It is Quaquelique who finally leaves with the woman, as his insignificance has set the woman free – she feels no pressure to be witty. But D’Ardelo remains oblivious of the value of insignificance – Ramon and Charles conclude that he is a narcissus. Ramon, however, feels sympathy for him owing to his alleged fatal disease.
Charles reads the story of ‘the twenty four partridges’ to Caliban. In the story, Stalin goes out to hunt and finds twenty four partridges sitting on the branch of a tree. He, however, has only twelve bullets. He shoots the first twelve, goes back to get more ammunition, and comes back and shoots the rest. The people under Stalin, unlike Caliban who laughs it off, were disgusted by the story and Stalin’s lies. They vented their frustration in the urinals. Charles and Caliban conclude that nobody was able to understand that Stalin was joking because they no longer knew what a joke was.
Charles speaks of writing a play for the marionette theatre, where characters can no longer be played by humans but only by marionettes, because long after people die they cease to have any human significance. The next time they meet, Charles gives his friends a lecture on the history of Kaliningrad. Charles mentions how because of his bladder problem, Kalinin had to urinate at frequent intervals, and therefore, was the butt of Stalin’s secret jokes, catching him in compromising situations. Stalin would slow down his story telling and Kalinin would remain sitting out of respect, thereby intensifying his bladder problem. It is only when Kalinin would give up the fight with his bladder, shaming himself in the process, that Stalin would swiftly bring his anecdotes to a close. Caliban can only wonder why Stalin would name a city after him, a city that was to be the birth place of the great Immanuel Kant.
A week later, Alain comes up with an explanation for such a name of a city. He asserts that secretly, despite the massacres and brutality with which he is associated, Stalin had a compassion for Kalinin, and that he wanted to thank him for his troubles and sufferings. Moreover, Stalin felt a mischievous delight at being able, with his supreme power, to scorn the gravity of war and politics and engage in a thoroughly personal whim, a whim that is splendidly bizarre, gorgeously absurd. For Charles, Kalinin is the symbolic epitome of mundane human suffering, of a battle lost that has brought suffering to no one but himself. Kaliningrad allows Ramon to retain his solidarity with humankind.
The mystery of the navel grips Alain again, and this time it brings back the memory of his last encounter with his mother. He records how his mother, sitting by the pool, had intently stared at his navel and how she had touched it with her index finger, with a smile of contempt as well as compassion. With that she had gone and Alain never saw her again.
An episode is recorded where a woman, later to be understood as Alain’s mother when she was pregnant, tries to commit suicide by drowning herself. But a young boy spots her and tries to save her. In a quick turn of events, the woman ends up drowning the boy with the idea of rescuing her death, but afterwards, discards the idea of suicide altogether – the rescuer dies, but the foetus remains alive.
Alain finds himself perplexed at his habit of apologising so frequently. Alain and Charles contemplate that life is a struggle of all against all. Whoever makes the other one feel guilty will win. They talk about an ‘army of apologisers’, and it is then that Charles reveals that he has been thinking of his mother too. In a bizarre chain of thought they talk of marionette theatres and angels, and Charles speaks of an angel appearing at the end of his play. They argue if angels have any sex or if they have a navel, but their conversation breaks off with their need to get ready for the cocktail party.
It is learnt that Caliban has been an actor in the past, and now, without work, he has been taken on by Charles, who earned his living by managing social events, as a waiter. With the enthusiasm of an actor Caliban pretends to be a Pakistani, speaking a foreign language, which, however, is improvised. Lately, he feels that this masquerade did not yield much and suffers from melancholy. However, when he encounters the Portuguese maid at D’Ardelo’s party, he feels slightly consoled. She speaks to him in Portuguese, while he to her in fabricated Pakistani. They feel comfortable in each other’s presence despite the difference in their languages, and the maid is glad that she does not have to speak French with him.
Alain records that in his room hangs only one picture – that of his mother. He recalls his father as a discreet, gentle man, whom his mother had left only a few months after he was born. He learnt from his father that his mother had never wanted him to be born in the first place. But years later when his father was dead, it was his mother’s photograph that he hung on his wall, with which, from time to time, he would talk. The photograph of his mother urges Alain on to make up stories about her. And so he imagines his father deceiving her in coitus, and with cold predetermination forcing the pregnancy upon her. Alain imagines himself to be the outcome of two simultaneous hatreds, and believes that such double hatred can only result in the birth of an apologiser.
Feeling out of place, Ramon decides not to go to the cocktail party, but changes his mind only at Charles and Caliban’s bidding. There he notices the graceful entrance of Madame Franck, and then the vigorous motions of her mastication as she speaks of the solitude of human existence. Ramon cannot help smile in amusement. He is further amused by the festival of wine tasting that the people gathered engage in, when he encounters Quaquelique. Quaquelique says that without new girlfriends good moods do not come his way and this propels Ramon to also contemplate about the issue of a good mood, before he walks up to Julie, a woman he is evidently attracted by.
Charles’ attention is caught by a small, white feather that floats below the ceiling and then slowly flutters around the room. It reminds him of the angel in his play, and he believes it to be a sign of the approaching angel, of the approaching end. The feather avoids Madame Franck’s raised index finger, and other people look and walk about aimlessly not sure about what is going on. The scene, however, shifts abruptly to where Molotov reports that Stalin’s statues are being knocked down, and Stalin explains it as only the end of a daydream.
Ramon looks for Julie, but finding her not there, for she has gone with Quaquelique instead, a cloud of sorrow descends over him. Caliban urges him to not talk to him in French as it might spill the beans of his masquerade. Ramon contemplates that Caliban’s joke might land him in jail, and consequently laments the twilight of joking – the post-joke age. He invokes Hegel to point out that an infinite good mood is cardinal to humour, and finally the two take their leave of each other, with Ramon wondering aloud how to achieve such a good mood. Having observed Madame Franck’s short speech about the vivacity of life, her swallowing of the last bits of pastry and then her dancing, skipping movement towards the exit, Ramon feels the Hegelian good mood alighting on him. He leaves elated, now and then a laughter bursting from him. About the same time, Alain hears the voice of his mother speaking about Eve as the navel-less woman from whom the tree of human existence has emerged. She speaks of her desire for the abolition of human existence with all its past and future, and for the tree to be uprooted with all its branches and roots. Having heard her out, Alain dozes off again.
The party is over, and with the maid’s inherent goodness Caliban is left with an insatiable desire for chastity. They set off to Alain’s place where Caliban wishes to drink to chastity. Together the friends decide upon the Armagnac that Alain has set atop the armoire, but the story yet again breaks off to Stalin’s story. Stalin heralds Schopenhauer over Kant and asserts that it was Schopenhauer who came closer to the truth about representations. In this regard, Stalin justifies the imposition of his will over others to maintain order in an otherwise chaotic world. And with the blow of Stalin’s fist on the table meant to illustrate the collapse of his will power, they all observe angels falling from rooftops, one after the other.
Caliban falls down from the chair and breaks the bottle of Armagnac. They observe that the loss of the Armagnac is a bad sign, and likewise, it is noted that the falling of angels too is a sign. In all the confusion, Stalin escapes dressed as a partridge hunter, and leaves his comrades in a state of fury and turmoil. Kalinin too, looking for a pissoir, runs out into the streets.
Next morning, Alain sets off on his bike to meet Ramon and Caliban. On the way he talks to his mother who, he feels, is riding with him. His mother speaks to him about the absence of human rights as regards the more important things in life, like birth and death, age and sex. Son and mother apologise to each other, the mother for not being able to prevent his birth, and the son for dropping into her life unwanted.
Ramon, as before, refuses to go see the Chagall exhibition and chooses, instead, to take a stroll in the park. Alain divulges his concern about the mystery of the navel to Ramon, and consequently asserts that while the thighs, buttocks, and breasts represent individuality of the woman, the navel represents a repetition. The navel, for Alain, is a call for repetition, and does not point to the woman, but to the foetus. Soon D’Ardelo also arrives, and together they observe a man dressed as a hunter, shooting at the statues, forbidding another man to piss in the most famous garden of Paris.
The children in the park prepare for a concert, and Ramon, under the impression that D’Ardelo is soon to die, divulges the secret of the significance of insignificance to him, an insignificance that is key to wisdom, key to a good mood. Under the influence of a lie, Ramon lies in turn about the clarity of D’Ardelo’s relation with Madame Franck. This assertion makes for a mood of light-heartedness, as the children’s chorus begins singing ‘La Marseillaise’, and a carriage finally leaves with the hunter, Stalin, and the pisser, Kalinin, in it.