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A powerful new book shares dissident stories smuggled out of North Korea

Knowing that the anonymous author of The Accusation is still living in North Korea adds another layer of discomfort; the book you hold in your hands carries huge risks for him and his family.

The Accusation, a collection of courageous and confounding short stories, is an unprecedented work of fiction by an author known only by the pseudonym Bandi. The manuscript, smuggled across North ­Korea’s borders by a relative, is the first piece of non-Juche literature (Juche ideas extol the country’s leader) to be published by a writer still living inside the Hermit Kingdom since the peninsula divided in 1945.

The stories are expertly translated by Deborah Smith, who brought Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian, to English-speaking readers. Each has at its heart an accusation, enabling the book to highlight masterfully the ways in which everyone – from an ageing party official to a two-year-old baby – is debased by the fear of committing an unavoidable or unforeseeable crime.

What happens to the parents whose baby is scared of posters of the Great Leader, or to the boy who is caught holding hands with a girl while picking flowers for display during the endless period of mourning for Kim Il-sung? How about the man who accidentally “murders” rice seedlings intended for collective farming, or the son who travels without a permit to visit his dying mother? “What crime have I committed?” he wonders to himself. “Am I a thief or a murderer?” These questions are private thoughts that can never be vocalised and the unpredictability of each “offence” is so unnerving, the punishment so severe, that Bandi’s craftsmanship often lies in his ability to eke out the details, as if this were some dystopian detective drama. The volatility of each scenario makes the outcome feel at once unthinkable and horrendously predictable.

Even though his work shows similarities of both quality and content to stories by authors as various as Gorky, Solzhenitsyn and Chen Ruoxi, or even Chinese contemporaries such as Yan Lianke, it is humbling to realise – given the continued blackout on any non-state-approved literature in North Korea – that Bandi has found his voice alone. And it is clear from his plaintive preface how little he knows of the way the outside world views North Korea: he fears that we, too, must be blinded by its propaganda.

We are used to poking fun from the outside at the state’s unintentionally hilarious news stories, from Kim Jong-il being “the best golfer in the world” to North Korean scientists confirming the existence of unicorns and inventing waterproof liquid. At the same time, the testimonies of those who escape – from high-ranking officials to political prisoners – leave us in no doubt that the human rights abuses under this totalitarian regime have no equal in the modern world. Only last month, we witnessed the bizarre assassination of the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong-un, apparently attacked at Kuala Lumpur Airport by two women, one of them dressed in pink tights and a top emblazoned with “LOL”, who say they thought it was a prank for a reality-TV show.

This chilling coexistence of comedy and tragedy is exploited beautifully by Bandi in “On Stage”, which centres around a young actor who has been investigated for improvising two sketches, “It Hurts, Hahaha” and “It Tickles, Boohoo”. His father, a government official responsible for assessing the “sincerity” of people’s grief during mourning for the Great Leader, is mortified: first by his son’s transgression and later by his own complicity in a world where expressions of sadness and joy are intentionally inverted. In “Pandemonium”, the only way to understand this warped reality is to make up monstrous fairy tales. As an old lady asks, “Where in the world might you find . . . 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 Accusation spans the period 1989 to 1995, covering the final years of the reign of Kim Il-sung, whose birthday is still celebrated as the “Day of the Sun”. As a lone representative for ordinary people living in what he calls “fathomless darkness”, Bandi (the name means “firefly”) offers a much more vulnerable form of illumination. Indeed, knowing that he is still living in North Korea adds another layer of discomfort; the book you hold in your hands carries huge risks for him and his family.

It’s a quiet privilege to be given access to the voiceless by listening to such vivid and uncompromised storytelling. And yet, emerging from Bandi’s “fictional” world, where news that doesn’t suit a ­government’s biases has no value, and the leader fixates on how many people attend the celebrations for National Day, this collection of stories seems both a flickering light in North Korea’s darkness and an unintentional reminder that it is getting darker here, too. 

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi, translated by Deborah Smith is published by Serpent’s Tail (256pp, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear