Zoran Drvenkar’s “Sorry,” a German bestseller that now invades our unsuspecting homeland, opens with a horrific crime: A man whose name we do not know knocks on the door of a woman who also remains anonymous. She recognizes the visitor and invites him in. After a bit of small talk, he renders her unconscious and drives her to another location, an apartment, where he nails her hands to the wall. (“The third blow wakes her, your eyes are level now and she screams into your face.”) Then with a hammer and a 16-inch nail, he kills her. As she dies, he reflects that “everything is right” and the scene ends with the reader having no idea who these people are or what, if anything, the woman did to be awarded such a fate.
The scene shifts, and we meet four young friends in Berlin: Kris; his brother, Wolf; and women named Tamara and Frauke. Kris has just been fired from his newspaper job, Wolf sells books, and the two women are at loose ends. “They have,” the author notes, “more defeats than victories to show for themselves.” But one day, Kris has an inspiration. They will start a company that will make apologies for businesses that do not want to make the apologies themselves. They will call their company Sorry.
I have no idea whether this enterprise was intended to be amusing or perhaps satirical; mostly it struck me as dumb, if only because most companies have public relations staffs that can grind out an apology if one is needed. In the novel, however, Sorry is a huge success, and the four partners soon buy a lakeside villa for their headquarters. Things go south, however, when one of the partners, Wolf, goes to an apartment to deliver an apology — arranged by telephone — and finds the woman who has been left nailed to the wall.
As Wolf is trying to decide what to do, his cellphone rings. It’s the man who hired them, and he tells Wolf that he and his partners must deliver the agreed-on apology and then dispose of the body. Otherwise, the caller will kill their loved ones. The partners dispose of the body and do so again when a second assignment arrives. We slowly learn that our four reluctant heroes have become involved with three generations of pedophiles and that one victim, grown up now after years of abuse — graphically described — is killing the people who abused him.
My objection to the book is that, as Drvenkar tells his story, it’s not just difficult but impossible for the reader to figure out what’s going on. Difficult is okay, impossible is not. Too many games are played with identifications and the time element. Two villains who tell their stories are identified only as “You” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” Two boys we meet in flashbacks are identified only by their nicknames, and we have no way of knowing which of the adult characters they may be. One unidentified person drives around for days with another unidentified person dying in the trunk of his (or her) car. The reader is kept entirely in the dark and, while some readers may find this tantalizing, I found it increasingly annoying.
Aside from this inscrutable plot, there’s gore galore in the book, as murders pile up, but happily there’s also some vivid writing. On the partners’ sudden success: “The stench of their youth lay behind them. All of a sudden everything was stylish and authentic; all at once they felt grown up.” On the death of a loved one: “Tamara’s weeping sounded like an insect that’s caught in a jar and looking in vain for a way out.” On the torture of an innocent: “The house swallowed the screams as dry soil swallows a sudden fall of rain.” On facing a predicament: “He’s an idiot but he’s an idiot with a gun in his hand.” On dying: “You are nothing now but a silent particle in a silent world that will never again be set in motion.”
It must be said that very near the end the author provides information that enables his plot to make sense. We even see the chief villain, unmasked and taunting one of his dupes: “Tell me, how silly did you feel standing in front of those corpses and mechanically reciting those texts?” No more silly, I fear, than I felt reading about it. Because it must also be said that, had I not agreed to review “Sorry,” I would have tossed it aside in frustration about 200 pages before the end.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Zoran Drvenkar
Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside
Knopf. 300 pp. $25.95