Written by Bandi — You won’t find a conventional thriller in this collection of modern-day short stories set in North Korea, and while you may find puzzlement, you won’t find much mystery. What you do find – on a vast, society-wide, top-to-bottom scale – is crime. At least you do if you think it’s criminal for government to stifle individuality, to vigorously enforce conformity in every aspect of thought and expression, and to corrode trust between even the closest companions.
Bandi is the pseudonym of a dissident author living in North Korea, and these are the first published stories written by a person still living there, as opposed to escapees or defectors. Bandi has been called ‘the Solzhenitsyn of Pyongyang’ and the story of how the book came to be smuggled out of the country and ultimately found its way into print is an exciting tale in itself, included as an afterword.
There have been claims that the country’s elites are becoming fed up with the government of the Great Leader Kim Jong-un, but such rumours have flown before and nothing has come of them. While Bandi’s seven stories were presumably written between 1989 and 1995, when Kim’s grandfather and father ruled the country, nothing much appears to have changed. They take place mostly during the presidency of Kim Il-sung, at the start of a five-year period of severe famine. It was a particularly bleak period, and the stories don’t mince words. Like the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, they share commonalities both in the psychological challenges that their protagonists face and in the external environment they must negotiate. For that reason, they can appear a bit redundant at the emotional level, but certainly reinforce the underlying themes.
Paranoia is prominent. An individual cannot deviate from expectations in any way without risking denunciation. People cannot complain about anything, significant or trivial, or risk being observed, reported, and denounced. The actor in the story On Stage titles the first act of his satirical – and dangerous – skit ‘It Hurts, Hahaha’ and the second ‘It Tickles, Boohoo!’ He wants to underscore how people must act according to expectations and contrary to their true feelings. This stunt, predictably, ends in disgrace.
Denunciation can lead to banishment from the city to a life of privation in the country, and even death. But death does not end a family’s downfall. A father’s error curtails the educational and occupational prospects of his children and grandchildren, as described in the collection’s first story, Record of a Defection’. Here, a family risks death to try to escape this collective fate. A child carries his parents’ family history like a brand.
Winters are bitter, food is never plentiful, and loudspeakers constantly harangue the population. The messages from the government are full of alternative facts. In the story The Red Mushroom, government officials claim that the local bean-paste factory is back in full production. It isn’t. There are no beans. So when the factory manager inevitably ‘fails’, his fate is sealed, and he goes mad.
The stories were translated by Deborah Smith, who also translated Han Kang’s South Korean novel The Vegetarian, winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Bandi’s writing style is markedly different from that of Western fiction, with little description and character development achieved mainly through action and dialog. The rather bare-bones, bracing style fits the stories told. Their content has so much implicit drama and heartache, there’s no need to elaborate.
From these stories, do you get the impression that the North Korean people see the peculiar nature of their system and its injustices? Absolutely. And do you have the impression that if they are called upon to fulfill some outrageous government edict they will break their backs trying to do so? Absolutely.
The Accusation is a quick read, and many pains have been taken to bring Bandi’s stories to worldwide audiences. For that heroic effort alone, the book is worthy of attention. However, it can’t hurt to foster greater understanding of the suffering that ensues when totalitarian leadership proceeds to its natural end-state. The North Korea Bandi describes is one Westerners may have difficulty comprehending, yet the fact that it exists right under our noses proves it is a possibility.
The Accusation is available from 2 March.
Serpent’s Tail/Grove Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars