THIS ISN’T JUST A SOUVENIR is a strange, dizzying flight of fancy. It nestles somewhere between The Beach-esque backpacker lit and conspiracy thriller, with a touch of absurdism thrown in. The imaginative arc is impressively long, with the work taking in discussion of Buddhism and the cyclical nature of progress, a critique of competing world ideologies, a dash of Free Tibet rhetoric, and dreamy travelogue, but ultimately, its reach exceeds its grasp.
The protagonist – he calls himself Sam Iam – finds himself in China, having sought out a weird character known as Hey Guevera. Guevara’s organization R.E.I.N. (“Revolution, Evolution, Infinite Nihilism”) has no faith in the world order, and seeks to assassinate the Dalai Lama for somewhat nebulous reasons. Sam, however, simply wants to find his lost girlfriend, though for reasons that remain opaque until very late in the story (we belatedly discover she went missing after a tsunami), and asks for Guevara’s help in doing so. Sam leaves China and travels south, shortly finds himself among R.E.I.N. members, and becomes indoctrinated with their ideas. It transpires that the Dalai Lama will be visiting the area, as will be a prospective politician, Candidate Dim.
Park has a sense of the outlandish ways in which Western backpackers can seek truth and self-discovery in southeast Asia, and he populates the story with would-be sages such as the Norwegian diver Jergen (who does a nice line in paraphrasing Nietzsche), well-meaning animal activists, and drifters of all descriptions. The descriptive language is heady and pungent, and the dialog is largely engaging. The natty style, however, does not compensate for the strangest aspect of the novel: its structure. It is only 152 pages long, but in the haste to establish the premise, exposition is rapid and inadequate, and the plotting is somewhat wayward. Given that Sam has ostensibly been roped into the R.E.I.N. organization and is on a quest to find his missing girlfriend, it’s surprising how little of the book he spends concerning himself with neither of these. The story’s brevity leads to uneven pacing – after less than a dozen pages, we are told that Hey has Sam “right where he wants me”, despite the fact that he has divulged no information whatsoever about the whereabouts of our hero’s “True Love”; even Sam doubts the veracity of everything Hey says to him. But in any case, Hey all but disappears from the story after the first fifty pages, and R.E.I.N. follows not long after, disposing the reader to wonder why so much time was spent on them in the first place.
Perhaps THIS ISN’T JUST A SOUVENIR’s main problem is how fragmented it is. Countless ideas take flight in its pages, but many of them never get fully explicated. Having established the stakes at the novel’s outset (there’s an assassination in the offing), there’s no payoff. The supposed plot is referred to here and there, but never amounts to anything. Candidate Dim’s importance to the story is not difficult to guess at, and he, like Hey, Jergen, and several others, is dispensed with once he is no longer relevant to the plot. By the story’s end, Sam has arrived at his destination – personal insight and enlightenment, dispensed by the Dalai Lama himself – but it’s a strangely incongruous road he takes to get there.
Ki Hyun Park’s THIS ISN’T JUST A SOUVENIR benefits from beautiful descriptive writing, but is hampered by a wayward plot and uneven pacing.
~Craig Jones for IndieReader