Sunday, 6 April 2014

'At Least We Can Apologize' by Lee Ki-ho (Review)

It's time for another selection from Dalkey Archive's Library of Korean Literature, and today's choice is a fairly recent one, a novel which looks at modern society and all the bad things that exist within it.  You haven't read it?  Please, no need for apologies...

Lee Ki-Ho's At Least We Can Apologize (translated by Christopher J. Dykas, review copy courtesy of the publisher) starts off in a mental institute, where two men, Si-bong and our narrator Ji-man, are whiling away their days, taking their pills and packing socks for sale to the outside world.  Suddenly, though, they are co-opted by a new inmate into appealing to that outside world for help, and shortly afterwards they find themselves released, free to return to their former lives.

As Ji-man has no memory of his home, the two stay with Si-bong's sister, Si-yeon, but with few skills their lack of money soon starts to bite.  One thing they're very good at, however (a skill picked up in the institute), is their ability to apologise, and with the help of Si-yeon's partner, they begin a business offering their apologising skills to the public.  Soon though, they discover that a case they've been offered, one involving a man who abandoned his family, might just be a little more than they can cope with...

The book revolves around a very clever idea.  For two men with limited intelligence trying to reintegrate into society, the only thing they really have to offer is a keen sense of the idea of 'wrongs' and apologies.  It may sound bizarre at first, but it's a service that is more in demand than you may think, particularly when you consider that everyone has something to hide if they look hard enough.

These 'skills' were first developed at the institute, and much of the important action happens there, mostly in the form of flashbacks.  It's here that the casual tone is interrupted by the brutal truth of time inside:
"After we confessed a wrong, we always made sure to commit it.  That was on account of feeling unsettled after having the confession in our heads all day long.  So, on days we said we didn't take our medicine, we really threw it away instead of taking it.  On days we said we'd cursed the superintendent in the bathroom, we really cursed him,  We made sure to commit exactly the wrongs we confessed, and only those wrongs.  Only that way could we ease our minds and sleep soundly."
p.26 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
In fact, the inmates are persecuted by the 'caretakers', and these confessions  are accompanied by savage beatings.  The abuse doesn't stop there though - the two friends are also used to cover up some inconvenient occurrences...

Lee uses a deliberately understated, neutral style, one excellently conveyed in English by Dykas, and we can only infer that this is meant to be representative of the limited intelligence of the narrator.  Despite this, there's often a surprisingly dark humour running though the novel too - as when Jin-man thinks back to the institute's superintendent:
"Sometimes he would suggest we put on a play.  He said that it would help our treatment.  We were always the mother, and the superintendent was always the child being spanked.  The dialogue was always the same: We would spank the superintendent on the behind with a pointer while shouting, "That's it?! Is that the best you can do?!"  Then the superintendent would yell out loudly, "Mother! Mother, please, more! Hit me more!"  With his behind facing us, raised high into the air, sometimes he would even start to bawl.  Then, when the play was over, he would give us chocolate milk or a yogurt drink." (p.45)
Even in telling us this story, Jin-man doesn't blink an eyelid...

Having developed a tough mental shell, the two friends are able to carry out their apologies and are surprisingly effective at manipulating people into using their services.  It's not an easy job though.  You see, apologising involves taking whatever action is deemed necessary to right the wrong, and the bigger the wrong, the more drastic the action required to right it.  The case which they take on involves a pretty big wrong, and the price of the apology seems far too high.  However, this is where a bit of lateral thinking comes in handy - sometimes thinking differently can be a distinct advantage.

At Least We Can Apologize is a clever, cutting look at society seen through the eyes of an outsider.  While Jin-man and Si-bong are treated like little children, when you see all the sex, violence and abuse happening around them, you begin to wonder.  At times, it's difficult to decide who the crazy ones really are in this novel.

It's an interesting story, one which ends ambiguously in many ways.  As mentioned, Lee has done an excellent job in constructing Jin-man's voice, allowing him to manipulate the reader's opinions of the main characters.  Despite the signposting and clues, the way matters come to a head is still a rude shock.  It seems that no matter how much you apologise, in the modern world, you just can't trust anyone.

I'm sorry about that - I really am...