Do You Know What You Did This Time?: Just Say Sorry by Lee Kiho

  • onOctober 20, 2014
  • Vol.7 Spring 2010
  • byYi Soo-hyung
Just Say Sorry

Even without bringing Freud into it, guilt is one of the basic emotional requirements for people living in a civilized society.

Without guilt, crimes would be committed without any qualms, and nobody would ever think there would be a price to pay. Picturing such a world of chaos is not a happy thought, and in that sense guilt is like a ticket to the world of order and civilization. But is such order and civilization always for the better? Lee Kiho has already described in his short story “The Age of Confession” a nightmare of a world in which a subaltern protagonist existing outside of society and order has to confess his guilt to gain entry, and revisits the theme from a new viewpoint with his latest novel Just Say Sorry.

Just Say Sorry starts with life in a shelter. Presumably built to give the homeless the benef its of civilization, the ‘shelter’ is a place of incarceration, violence, and forced labor rather than protection. The wielders of violence keep up an endless stream of, “You know what’s your problem?” or “You know what you did this time?” that eventually causes the victims to feel, amazingly enough, that they did do something wrong. So the protagonists Sibong and the narrator “from that day on, we committed crimes every day. Us, we didn’t know what our crime was, so we always confessed first.” This is an example of how guilt is established through confession, and how human beings are tamed by that guilt.

Of course, the shelter where the protagonists are incarcerated cannot be seen as a typical example of human society.

The story of Just Say Sorry takes a new turn when the protagonists leave the shelter and are incorporated into the daily lives of ordinary people. Looking for work, Sibong and the narrator realize that what they do best is apologize. Think about it. Wouldn’t someone who can confess crimes and ask for forgiveness when faced with totally unprovoked violence be able to admit to committing crimes and apologize under any circumstances whatsoever? In other words, they are compulsive confessors and automatic apologizers. So they plaster ads saying, “We do your apologies for you. For all the crimes unwittingly committed against your parents, spouse, siblings, relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, we apologize for you,” and search for clients.

Apology by proxy seems to be an asinine concept at first glance. But the problem is not that simple. Because ordinary people leading honest lives do “unwittingly” commit crimes against their “parents, spouse, siblings, relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues.” They just don’t acknowledge them. However, to our compulsive, automatic apologizers, their crimes are as clear as day. What is a crime?

Towards the end of the novel the director of the shelter asserts that: “the only way to forget a crime is to pretend it never happened.” Most people likely live their lives according to the director’s words, but that does not absolve their crimes. Then what is there to do? The weight of the question raised in Just Say Sorry belies the light style it is written in. 




Author's Profile

Lee Kiho (b. 1972) is the author of two novels, At Least We Can Apologize (2009) and A World History of Second Sons (2014), and six short story collections, including Choi Sun-duk: Filled with the Holy Spirit (2004) and Who’s Doctor Kim? (2013). At Least We Can Apologize was published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2013 and in Romanian by Editura Univers in 2017. Lee teaches creative writing at Gwangju University.