Another great one from the LTI Korea/Dalkey Archive’s collection of novels!
Lee Ki-ho’s At Least We Can Apologize is narrated by the simpleminded Jin-man, institutionalized as a young boy by his father. The institution he was left in is a horrible place, lorded over by two caretakers — nephews of the superintendent who runs it — who regularly beat and otherwise abuse the patients. Not knowing any other kind of life, Jin-man has rationalized what happens there; along with his buddy, Si-bong, he has come to expect the beatings and to play the role he believes is expected of him. Often they don’t know what they are supposed to have done wrong and even invent wrongs to confess to the caretakers — though if they invent a wrong they then deliberately commit it in the service of “fairness.” This, in fact, leads to the caretakers appointing them as “apologizers” for the other inmates, and this starts a bizarre chain of events that results in two suicides.
Sounds like another dark one?
Kind of, except it’s not. The tone is funny, and the tragedy is more like farce and in some ways reminds me of the writing of Kurt Vonnegut, a deceptively seductive but bad idea/logic is proposed and then followed to the ends of its internal logic.
A third person is injected into the narrative; a newcomer who doesn’t play by the rules — spitting out the medicine they are given, for example — convinces them to try to communicate with the outside world, sneaking messages into the crates of socks they pack calling attention to their situation as captives. Eventually the authorities come, closing down the institution. Released, Si-bong and Jin-man make their way to Si-bong’s sister, Si-yeon, and move in with her and her much older no-good lover. Without guidance, they have a bit of difficulty adapting to the outside world — and the tandem proceed more or less just as they had when they were institutionalized.
Unfortunately, their concept of wrongs (and appropriate apologies) are strongly colored by their experiences at the hands of the caretakers. Their efforts have an internal logic, but don’t produce the desired effects (except through the odd lens their minds have been shaped into by their terrible experiences). The pair now encounter people who seem to have found a happy equilibrium — a local butcher and his buddy, the owner of a fruit stand, or a mother and her son — but with their apologies Jin-man and Si-bong wreak havoc with remarkable ease in a world where madness, in its various manifestations, can become indistinguishable from any norms. As the story continues to spin towards its dark but ‘logical’ outcome the reader is pulled along by the farcical nature of the tragedy, and even while wincing at the fates of some of the characters a reader will be persuaded to smile, perhaps even laugh.
As the story ends, survivors stand in the rubble of their old lives and look both forward and behind. Joo is quite clearly commenting on authority’s power to distort (he’s a bit like Yi Munyol in this way) and also on the power of the church as evident in the ‘cleansing’ role of confession and in some rather obvious bits of visual symbolism. The commentary on the church is sometimes explicit as when a police officer questions the two friends about a suspicious death:
“So you’re saying that the man who died, he died for something that someone else did wrong? That’s what you’re saying?”
We answered the police officer’s question by nodding our heads without speaking.
The police officer beat his pen on the table as he spoke. “Huh, and here I thought there was only one Jesus.”
It’s a bit post-modern, and a bit absurd, but also a fun read on at least two levels. First is the surface level, as a farcical course of events. Second is as a metaphor for the ability of power, particularly when it can instill guilt in the powerless, to control without having to use formal control, and how that, once unbalanced, can spill completely out of control.