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[SPANISH] To Buy Forgiveness

by Andrés Felipe Solano Translated by Lucina Schell June 8, 2023

Nos sale bien pedir perdon (At Least We Can Apologize)

  • Hwarang Editorial
  • 2022

Lee Kiho

Lee Kiho

Beatings, insults, forced labor, pills, and more beatings. This summarizes the lives of Si-bong and Jin-man, the protagonists of Lee Kiho’s debut novel, At Least We Can Apologize. This pair of men, of uncertain age and origin, barely remember who they were before being institutionalized. They don’t even know the name of the place where they are, only that while inside it one of them has grown six centimeters and the other has gained eight kilograms. They would have continued this way until their deaths and burial on a nearby mountain, as has happened to other interned residents, but one day they are suddenly freed. At the instigation of a friend, they unintentionally get the authorities to close that mysterious torture center that was supposed to be a mental hospital. From that moment, Jin-manthe narrator of this storyand Si-bong become like pinballs. Life carries them from one place to another until they realize that they have to somehow earn their bread. What better way than to apologize on behalf of others? It’s all they know how to do, anyway. Didn’t they train for that in “the institution,” as they called the place where they were. Beatings, insults, forced labor, pills, more beatings. And apologizing.



     Since his first story, “Birney,” published in 1999, Lee resolved to break with traditional Korean narrative and became a writer who serves as one of the reference points when speaking of the renovation of Korean literature at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. And fortunately, he’s done so without shyness. In “Birney,” Lee has borrowed the cadence of rap and merged it with pansori, something completely outside the scope of what Korean literature was supposed to be. Later, with his first novel, At Least We Can Apologize, he realized something fundamental, a premise that would accompany him from there on out, as he himself has stated in various interviews: that literature operates in the margins. That is where the imagination blooms, far from the explicit causes, the clear reasons, and the politically correct judgments of the works of many authors who preceded him.



     When writing At Least We Can Apologize, Lee decided then that reductionof facts, explanations, even descriptionswas what best served this story that echoes real denunciations from years prior, when various Korean mental institutions were accused of transforming their patients into ruined shells of their former selves.



     The reader should keep this in mind when reading At Least We Can Apologize, a novel that at times verges on the absurd and contains strokes that could have easily come from the physical comedy of early silent films. The dialogue at some point is written in a style that makes us think of Ionesco: “We’ve decided to earn money by making apologies for people. We hoped that you might become our first customer,” they say to a butcher in total seriousness.



     The story of Si-bong and Jin-man is not a tragedy, despite the brutality that confronts them and that seems to come from everywhere. A brutality that doesn’t befall just them, but also those they encounter on their journey, like Si-bong’s sister, always on the edge of a nervous breakdown; the pathetic man addicted to horse racing with whom they live; or the female owner of a twenty-four-hour convenience store that feels more a prison than a job. It’s as if “the institution” were in reality the whole country, Lee seems to tell us.



     Or perhaps At Least We Can Apologize is a tragedy, but full to the brim with a disconcerting, uncomfortable, and cutting humor: “Do you by any chance have something you’d like to apologize for?” “Have you done anything wrong to anyone lately?” “We’ll apologize for you for a great price!” This is the ad that the pair hands out on the streets and sticks to the lampposts. Apology as a service for hire, something for which one can pay.



     In this sense, Lee uses in a new way a concept that permeates Korean society: guilt. And with guilt comes shame. We are all guilty of something and hence should apologize. To whom? To everyone. For everything. When? Right away.



 



Translated by Lucina Schell



 



Andrés Felipe Solano



Author, Gloria (2023)

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