For Henrik Blatand in Paris is a Party, Paris is a Ghost, memory manifests physically. In this debut novel by David Hoon Kim, Henrik begins to see, sometimes converse with phantoms of his dead girlfriend, Fumiko. Henrik fumbles with guilt over her suicide and senses her presence throughout Paris—she has become his ghost. While the first section of the novel—originally published as “Sweetheart Sorrow” in The New Yorker in 2007—seems to establish Fumiko as the pivot of Henrik’s memory, she ceases to appear again until the novel’s final moments.
Fumiko essentially becomes a ghost for the reader, too. As the novel travels into Henrik’s past and future, she is referenced only through section titles that divide the story into three novella-esque portions: “Fumiko,” “Before Fumiko,” and “After Fumiko.” Fumiko establishes the structural bounds for not only Henrik’s life, but also for the reader’s physical experience of the novel. Even when Fumiko, the character, is absent within the plot, she acts as an ever-present overseer whose name manifests a material force; the mere utterance—or more appropriately, mere printing—of her name invokes the memories of the novel’s first section as well as the awareness of Henrik’s unaddressed trauma.
So, what’s in a name? And more broadly, what’s in language? For both Henrik and Kim, language is crucial. Henrik begins the novel as an aspiring translator and eventually attends translation school to work between French and English, rather than his native Danish. Kim also studied in France at the Sorbonne and writes fiction in both French and English. Both writers are also Asian—Henrik is Japanese and adopted by Danes while Kim is Korean-born—and neither work professionally in their ancestral languages.
Henrik and Kim have made a choice in language, for to intentionally study and immerse yourself in a foreign language is to radically alter your identity. In an interview with The New York Review, Kim speaks of his experience studying in France as an outsider and notes influence from Akira Mizubayashi (a Japanese author who writes in French): “a language is something that exists outside of national borders: you can come and go as you please, without answering to any higher power or authority.” Essentially, language can be both a means of autonomy and secrecy—language can make you a ghost.
Language can also create escape. For Kim, French and English act as “mask[s]” for covering up English and Korean, respectively. Henrik notes similarly to Kim that “an unforeseeable side effect of communicating in a [foreign language] was that it allowed [him] to forget… to rename the world and everything in it.” He also describes the appeal of translation as “not having to churn out anything in the way of original thought,” as translation presents “the prospect of… temporarily escaping” his own thoughts. Therefore, while it is true that language allows for escape—for ghosts, for abstraction—it is also true that it is a force to escape because of its relation to exhausting ‘original thought’ and its ability to bring you back to memory with a single word or name.
Henrik and Kim delight in the cover of language while sometimes shirking its relation to memory—though a foreign language might allow you to create new memories that are untouched by the past, the language you escape will, inevitably, bring you back. “Fumiko,” for example, acts as the defining landmark around which Henrik’s life expands. Language establishes something like a physical monument, but, of course, is neither permanent nor tangible. Thus, Paris is a Party, Paris is a Ghost is a novel in which language and memory are inextricably linked with relationship between the physical and metaphysical.
Henrik’s memory functions between the abstract and concrete throughout the novel. His experiences border on the supernatural as he witnesses specters of his dead girlfriend, the vanishing of restaurants, mind reading, missing thesis advisors, a group of intelligent crows, and the potential reincarnation of a French revolutionary. It is unsurprising that many deem the novel a psychological thriller, given how these incidents feel inexplicable. But considering the speaker and author’s experiences as ghosts through language and memory, these moments lose their supernatural spark. Henrik and Kim have moved through life with no place to truly settle—they have been physical outsiders in their adopted homes of Paris (regardless of their proficiency in French) and have been distanced from their so-called motherlands. The novel, then, observes how existing constantly between language, between escape and inhabit, between abstract and concrete—existing as ghosts—can cause the paranormal to figure normalcy.
Kim’s debut novel investigates memory as medium through a very specific and fixed perspective. While Henrik’s background and identity may initially feel unrelatable and isolated, I urge any reader to interrogate their own relationship with settlement or simply enjoy the precision of Kim’s sentences when experiencing the book. As a fellow ghost, I found this read not only entertaining but gratifying, and I look forward to reading more of Kim’s work.