Translated by Deborah Smith
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Look at all these people, sobbing over a death that happened three months ago, starving because they haven’t been able to draw their rations all the while. What about the mother of the child bitten by a snake while he was out gathering flowers for Kim Il-sung’s altar? Perhaps she finds private grief useful for shedding public tears. Isn’t it frightening, this society which teaches us all to be great actors, able to turn on the waterworks at the drop of a hat?
Outsiders view North Korea with a mixture of horror and disbelief: the totalitarian regime, starvation, and nuclear threat are all part of a reality that horrify the rest of the world, but at the same time the regime’s antics – parades bordering on the surreal, assassinations at airports, the young Kim-jong Nam losing his claim to the throne after a botched attempt to visit Disneyland Tokyo – are subject to incredulous ridicule. It is as if the country itself in all its impossibility worked as a muse for anyone in need of a ready-made topic. But The Accusation does not revel in the nation’s public image. Rather, it lifts the veil off what hides underneath the fake tears and faceless parades.
Like the surreal reality of North Korea, The Accusation is a story in its own right, without ever attempting to be one. The road to its publication is suitably dotted with human determination, oppressed voices, and bravery, to make a captivating read in its own right. Unlike the many authors of works set in North Korea, Bandi – ‘firefly’, the author’s pseudonym – has not defected. We know he is part of the regime’s literary machine, having earned the position for his talent but constrained to produce regime-friendly prose. But on the side, he writes pure realism – stories that could never be published in North Korea Protecting his wife and children, Bandi won’t attempt to escape himself; rather, the manuscript crossed the border through useful connections, financial generosity, and many lucky encounters later – all along hidden in the covers of The Selected Works of Kim-il Sung. What emerges is anti-reactionary prose at its finest.
The Accusation is made up of eight short stories, set at different points of the North Korean dictatorship. We meet a family which is driven to make the difficult decision to defect, the child who comes home in tears when opportunities are snatched away from him at school because of unfortunate family affiliations, and the baby who cries at the sight of the nation’s leader, and the father who toils away in the mountains, hoping to provide a better life for his children. There is the man who risks everything to visit his dying mother without a travel permit, the journalist who grapples with writing lies, and the elderly lady who is swept into Kim-il Sung’s convoy in a dream-like sequence, only to turn into a nightmare where she is tortured and punished after the incident.
Criticism of the regime shines clear throughout the stories. Bandi’s agenda is unashamedly clear: North Korea is a nightmare. The starkest case of this is the allusion to Pandemonium, the garden ruled by evil but which to the outside projects only laughter:
Where in the world might you find such a garden, such a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter?
The stories also ridicule the massive events put on by the regime. Bandi depicts how Kim-il Sung’s convoy blocks both road and rail, leaving people starving at stations, just so that the leader can ride closer to the coastline throughout the journey. In another story, set after the death of Kim-il Sung, a circle of cars is deployed to shine their headlights onto Kim-il Sung’s memorial in the case of a power cut.
However, Bandi’s work goes beyond political commentary. The author’s literary skill shines through in how personal stories are intervowen into the critical narrative. Bandi’s characters grapple with the powerlessness to do anything about the injustices they see unfolding around them. A journalist is faced with the dilemma of knowing the reality but having to write an amended version of the truth:
It was like a skewer being inserted into his brain: He simply could not ignore the thought that even in cases when the order came from the redbrick house and should therefore be obeyed without hesitation, there were some instances in which it was simply not possible to produce what was required – as impossible as making yourself cry on command.
Instances like this offer answers to outsiders asking ‘why don’t they revolt?’
Personal tragedies are intertwined with political ones. We are introduced to a father and son who disagree over the latter’s target of affection, a girl whose family have been branded as politically troublesome. The father, a party official, does his utmost to separate the couple, but is forced to realize that he, too, is living a lie. It is exactly these realizations that are the most gripping moments of the collection. In another story, we meet a man who takes up soy bean cultivation in the vague hope that the regime might forgive him for his unfortunate association with an anti-regime relative. The sequence where he finally realizes that the regime has been lying to him and that all his work has been in vain is one of most heart-wrenching, and at same time politically clear scenes:
Now that Inshik’s snow-white conscience had finally recognized the poisonous mushroom that had put down roots in this land, he was summoning a desperate strength to pull it up from the ground, that mushroom stained with deceit and oppression, with tyranny and pacification.
For Bandi, there are no black and whites, just shades of grey. Is the party official to blame for his actions as he is just as indoctrinated in the regime’s lies as the man toiling away in the fields?
The Accusation is gripping prose, offering a view into a morbidly interesting country. It is skillfully written, ironically turning the regime’s writer training against itself: collections like this show that the walls of a Pandeonium can crack, because what is heard on the outside now is definitely not laughter.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.
Bandi, trans. Deborah Smith, The Accusation (Serpent’s Tail, 2017), 978-1781257548, 256pp., hardback.
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