The narrator of this book and his friend Si-bong know how, and they will help you. LuckYou have committed a wrong.
But you can be forgiven.
The narrator of this book and his friend Si-bong know how, and they will help you. Lucky for you, they have recently been released from an asylum that they were very partial to. There, they had an important—no, the most important—job. They were to apologize for the wrongs of their fellow patients.
This duty was given to them by the caretakers, those two vicious men with a penchant for savage beatings who revealed even darker tendencies as well. The caretakers were the staff that the narrator and Si-bong interacted with most frequently; they were authority figures to be obeyed without question. Pummeling the boys, the caretakers accused them of having committed all manner of “wrongs.” The boys internalize this, like perfect little blank slates, and the caretakers become their moral compass. After importing the caretaker’s logic so well, and becoming so good at taking beatings, they agree to be punished in place of the other patients. They sought them out, asked what wrongs they had committed, and were polite enough to commit wrongs for them, if needed. Then these boys reported their findings and were abused in place of the others. They did not enjoy the pain, but still they were dutiful.
After being released from the asylum, they were suddenly members of that glorious vibrant public world. Today, for a small cost, they would like to offer their professional services to you. Sincere apologies for a nominal fee, what do you have to lose? If you cannot identify a wrong you’ve committed, they will do that for free. Their world sounds absurd, you say? I understand. The whole point of the apology is to get right, to “fix” something, to be accountable. The apology is a symbol as well as the act of repentance. When all of that is delivered through someone else, it loses its sense. Gone are the elements of humility, humiliation, and pain. It becomes a superficial maneuver meant to deliver absolution without having to go through the trouble of actually meaning anything. But these boys have no dreams of their own, none of the big, powerful emotions like rage, passion, misery, joy, or despair. They are detached from the world. And yet they are also watchers and intruders. Constantly moving along the periphery, they gaze upon you as potential clients, ripe for transacting.
Even as they tread in liminal space, these boys belong to modern Korea. They reflect the ambivalence of a rapidly modernized, highly industrialized, and stratified society: a place where chaebol CEOs, government officials, foreign nations, and even criminals are always apologizing—or not—in highly conspicuous, but often seemingly useless ways. At a time when people are becoming increasingly individualized, the boys (who are practically one being for the majority of the book) speak to some of the anxieties related to isolation. Locked in the topsy-turvy world of the asylum, cut off from the rest of society, they develop odd and asocial behaviors that seem horrifically and completely normal to them. There is also a pervasive sense of the modern-day dread that things do not really change except for the worse. Indeed, the boys find their “job” to be impressive, even respectable. Si-bong and the narrator don’t really have anything else to offer; they have nothing to capitalize on but their “skill” at apologizing. They also never question the point of the apology beyond being recognized for their service. This is one of the essential absurdities of the book: these determined boys are keen observers of their own failure without ever really realizing it.
This is not a comfortable book, but it is one that strikes chords that we know, even if only faintly. Those chords thrum with familiar questions: What is the significance of an apology and how does forgiveness figure into our culture? What are the more complicated issues associated with ultimate individuality and freedom? Can repentance be bought? In a story where a transactional ideal takes precedence over relating to others, how does consumerism factor into our lives? What does it mean to spend your life searching for wrongs? Who are you if you are a blank slate in a world that has its share of caregiver-like authorities? These questions seek introspection and discussion if only to better disentangle ourselves from the surreal, whirlpool-like recollections of the narrator.
Our narrator’s sparseness will draw you in and then make you an observer to wrongs apologized for and wrongs created. You are meant to be troubled by this story. This book will unnerve you, make you feel that the world is stagnant.
But you will find or make meaning where the main characters did not. You will make your own apologies—or not. As you read and see how the boys’ clients turned out, you will come to agree that what you can “at least” do is never enough and that such efforts can unfortunately beget larger problems. Provoking a constant tension, this story makes you feel as though long fingers dangle you above emptiness, though you want to discover significance during the fall. ...more