Zoran Drvenkar’s “Sorry”

Reviewed by Nina Herzog

Image of Zoran Drvenkar’s “Sorry”

Rare is the thriller that surpasses the limits of genre fiction. But Zoran Drvenkar’s Sorry is one such book: a thriller on its face, but also a thoughtful study in guilt and innocence, violence and redemption. It alternates among the first, second and third persons, with almost each of the eight chapters bifurcating into “After” and “Before” sections. Drvenkar flirts with postmodern forms and high jinks but manages to avoid sounding gimmicky. These narrative inversions are organic to a story that abounds in unexpected turns and keeps the reader exactly as blind as the characters themselves.

Four friends are introduced to us in an early chapter. They are young and ambitious, but also bored. So one of them comes up with the strange business idea to sell apologies—literally to apologize, on a contract basis, for others’ misdeeds. It is this somewhat bizarre ambition that leads to their intersection with the killer. You are the killer.

Part of an introductory chapter, called “In Between,” is addressed to “You.”

“You” are the most important character—the most complicated and the one most in need. It is You who hires the four young new entrepreneurs to craft an apology for the first, then second, murders you commit. The deaths of all who perish in the book—and there are plenty—affect the innocent, the guilty, and the accidental bystander. And yet, for all the havoc you’ve wreaked, You are only looking for retribution. Once you exact it, You would like to apologize: for the two murders you must commit to exact a revenge for an indignity suffered during childhood at the hands of the murdered two.

So the author describes in sometimes vicious detail how You track down Your two offending villains, the ones on whom You must seek retribution, though the reasons don’t become clear until the very end. You kill the first person, and nail his head to a wall. Then, You hire the business You read about in the paper to go to the address and read an apology into a tape recorder. Included in the package of instructions You sent are photographs of loved ones of each of the four friends. If they don’t read the apology, You, the murderer, will kill their relatives. Oh, yes, and one more thing: the instructions specify the four friends in the business hired are to dispose of the body.

Not long after they complete the first assignment with much argument and complications, You send them a second package of instructions. Once again, You have killed another person, a woman this time, nailing her to the same wall. You would like to apologize for that indiscretion as well. Enter the ultimate villain, The Man Who Wasn’t There. His identity is revealed only toward the very end, and much of the book requires the reader to be comfortable keeping track of many mysteries at once. The reader is taken through the book almost as blindly as the four friends are taken through their ordeals. It is only at the end that the pieces fit together and the entire book’s puzzle is revealed.

The second body creates more chaos than the first. And this is where I must stop telling the story for fear of spoiling the plot. What I can tell you, though, is that the book is written with the highest caliber of both tension and intelligence. This is in no small part due to the expert translation from the German by Shaun Whiteside. It’s the kind of book for a Friday evening, with the rest of the weekend free, because not much else will be able to compete for your attention.

Zoran Drvenkar was born in Krizevci, Croatia in 1967 and moved to Germany in 1970. The author of many books, particularly for young adults, and plays, he was awarded the Friedrich Glauser Prize for this one. Here Drvenkar’s writing is as lethal and sharp as the story itself. Here’s a sample from Part IV: After.

I’m woken by a dull knocking, and for a moment I’m completely disoriented. Everything around me is gray; at irregular intervals floodlights cut through the darkness and fray the fog. The memory rushes in at me, so that I have to shut my eyes and breathe deeply in and out. My blackouts last longer and longer these days. I really need to sleep for twelve hours, the short pauses aren’t enough.

The knocking again.

. . . I take my cramped hand off the ignition key, I was prepared for anything. Two taillights glow red in the darkness, a minivan pulls out of the rest area, and again there’s the knocking from the trunk. It lasts for exactly twenty-four seconds. When it’s quiet again I get out and take a look.

His forehead is covered with blood. Somehow he’s managed to get his head free. I leave the trunk open for a few minutes so the stench can escape, then duct-tape his head to the spot. It’s the third day. He isn’t getting any water from me, he hasn’t earned it.

At this point in the story, this narrator and scene are still unattached to the main plot, so the reader simply hangs on to the authorial voice, trusted as it has become after the gripping opening sections of the book. Drvenkar has earned it.