At one point, Kim backtracks to Henrik’s early days in Paris, when he was swiftly made aware of his foreignness by both the French and the Asian expatriates “who thought I had something in common with them.” His insistence that he does not belies his curiosity and an unmistakable, if unspoken, affinity. He falls in with two Korean tour guides who confide in him in their darkest moments and drag him along on a tortuous search for a North Korean restaurant in Montmartre — one of a flurry of excursions around a city of longings and letdowns. Henrik reminded me at times of Baudelaire’s escaped swan, doddering around a Paris he doesn’t recognize, home just a flash of memory mixed with desire.
To that end, it can be tempting to read “Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost” as an immigrant’s tale, a doleful, beautifully written study of the confused yearnings and scars of exile. But the identity crisis here is deeper, roiled by the universal, often doomed impulse to imbue meaning where it no longer exists. “Perhaps my brain, unable to cope with such unrelenting nothingness, had filled the void with symbols and signs,” Henrik tells us in the pitch-dark catacombs, autocompleting his way back to clarity. His ghosts occupy the hollow that grief has left, but soon vanish; even his translations are false reconciliations, filling the gap between two stubborn tongues with writing, that dangerous supplement, which distorts our intentions even as it realizes them.
After Fumiko, Henrik finds something like fatherly fulfillment in his young goddaughter, Gém, and he pursues her to Rome in a madcap story line involving horror movies, long-lost siblings and flocks of diabolic crows. Here, the narrative starts to wander, though confidently, like a tour guide trying not to show that he’s moseyed off route, and one might complain that the whole book is not quite a novel but a collection of tangents, auspicious starts. But in Gém we recognize Henrik’s deprivations, his hapless struggle to recapture a failed love. His realizations land with the grace and pain of someone who knows what he’s looking for can’t be found.
What is a novel anyway? An attempt to escape our own chaos through the chaos of others. “The trick” to eluding panic, Henrik advises, “was not to empty one’s mind, which in any case was impossible, but instead to fill it with more thoughts, all kinds of thoughts, crisscrossing and converging.” Imperfect and meandering, but full of meticulously rendered thinking, Kim’s telling is a fine way out.
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