|Statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il
by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, [CC BY-SA 3.0]
A man with a wife and family, Bandi risked all he had to publish this book. When his relative offered to help smuggle the manuscript out of the country, he chose to accept, ultimately trusting his and his family’s lives to the success of the plan. Handing the secret pages over to the liaison must have been agonizing, but his gamble paid off: the book survived the journey out.
Bandi, much like Jang Jin-Sung, held a position of literary eminence in North Korea. Disillusioned by what he saw in the Kim Il-Sung regime, Bandi decided to start writing the truth in secret, placing himself in potentially fatal danger. The Accusation is a collection of short stories penned in the early-to-mid 90s, in which Bandi exposed Communist abuses through fiction and the lives of characters who feel more real than imagined. The book was first published in English hardcover edition in 2017, and the spare yet vivid writing suggests Bandi could have shared more, had he had the ability to do so.
After finishing The Accusation, I did not find there was really one story that stood out greatly above the others. Instead, read together they make a cohesive volume, really a single tale told from seven perspectives. Familial love, suffering, and terror are the common threads running throughout the book. In this you find the reality faced by Bandi and many others – a reality horrible even in at its simplest moments.
For example, he emphasizes that even people supposedly in good standing with the Communist Party can be found guilty of disloyalty. “Crimes” sometimes originate in the most innocuous circumstances, such failure to succeed with Party-dictated farming methods:
Using greenhouses to raise rice seedlings was utterly alien to those who worked the land… And that was how my father came to make his terrible mistake, the mistake that was to see him branded an “anti-Party, antirevolutionary element,” a black mark that appeared overnight but that would dog our family for generations.
The shame pronounced by the Party upon such a family is not just a label – it becomes a social stigma enforced by the community (perhaps out of fear for themselves). In “Record of a Defection,” the female narrator experiences this horror in several different forms, leading her to desperation. The same fear colors the angry outburst from father to son in “On Stage,” a story about how North Koreans are compelled to fake it and “act” in their everyday lives.
From the treachery of a neighbor to the destructive power of a hungry mob, these stories show the layer-by-layer presence of propaganda and terror throughout North Korean society. There is nothing really explicit in this book, which is what makes it chilling. You can see easily how a radical ideology transformed a nation, bestowing both monolithic fear and energetic evil. Those two elements feed off of each other until someone takes a stand, choosing freedom of conviction over survival itself.
Some of Bandi’s poems, which were part of the manuscript, have yet to be published in English. I hope that will happen soon; I was very moved by the two poems which bookend this collection. Particularly haunting is this description of Marx in the first:
That old man of Europe with his bristling beard
Claimed that capitalism is a pitch-black realm
While communism is a world of light.
In 2004, Jang completed his escape from the DPRK. “Bandi,” however – whose real identity we may never know – is still living there, and, possibly, still writing stories and poetry of what he knows, not just of what he is told. His book alone escaped and tragically remains as relevant in 2018 as it was when he wrote the stories over two decades ago.
Great review.This book seems so very important. There are a few narratives of life in North Korea out there. I need to read at least one of them. The fact that this author never escaped and might still be there seems adds some power to the story.
Brian, this is one of those books that will challenge you as a person, in the best ways. As a writer, am I writing what's important to me – as a person, could I ever be as brave as Bandi? Or even a little less? It's fascinating (and troubling) on a multiple levels.