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 appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda