I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi, Deborah Smith
Published by Grove Press on March 7th 2017
Format: Electronic ARC
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4.5 Stars. The Accusation is a collection of seven short stories about life in North Korea. The manuscript was smuggled out of the country. It’s the first time a book critical of the North Korean government written by someone who still lives in North Korea has been published.
Bandi, Korean for firefly, is the pseudonym the author uses; he states that he’s “fated to shine only in a world of darkness.” The translation is by Deborah Smith, translator for Han Kang’s Human Acts and The Vegetarian. Bandi wrote the stories between 1989 and 1995. They take place during the rule of Kim Il-sung, grandfather of North Korea’s current leader Kim Jong-un. The stories are fictional but based on real-life accounts. Every story is great! They had all of the features I appreciate most: completeness, rich symbolism, thoughtful characters with strong family relationships, and haunting endings. It was even more impressive that these stories were written in such a closed environment. I was reminded of all the dystopian fiction I’ve read and it’s jarring to think that it’s unlikely Bandi ever experienced any of that work–though he is living it firsthand.
There’s a classic quality to the stories, perhaps due to the lack of technology or the author’s restricted sphere of inspiration. The presentation of the stories is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work, because Bandi tends to introduce an event and fill in the gaps later. Many of the relevant details are revealed through an intimate conversation (“Life of a Swift Steed,” “So Near Yet So Far”) or via a document (“Record of Defection”).
It features both the privileged and those who are marked by an ancestor’s “crimes” against the state. Status is never guaranteed and a perceived misstep can alter the course of a life. There’s a constant fear that the actions of a relative will become a lifelong burden. Fear and obedience are necessary tools for survival. All negative emotions must be suppressed. Anyone could be watching, waiting to find someone committing even the most minor offense. In each of these stories, characters find themselves in an absurd situation that makes them see the contradictions of their homeland. Sometimes realizing the disconnect between long-held beliefs and the reality of their situation has tragic consequences.
The first five stories were my favorites, but each story has staying power:
Record of a Defection – A man discovers that his wife has been taking birth control in secret. Her other strange behavior makes him assume the worst, but there’s another explanation. The sacrifices we make for those we love and the cruelty of multi-generational punishments.
People write books and sing songs claiming that love is this or that. But to me, love was indistinguishable from sympathy. That intolerable fretfulness at your inability to take any of the suffering on yourself, that irrepressible impulse to offer up your own flesh as a sacrifice, anything to bring some measure of relief.
City of Specters – A two-year-old boy cries every time he sees the giant portrait of Karl Marx across from his apartment, causing huge problems for his parents. This story shows the extreme paranoia of the state and the power of fear.
Life of a Swift Steed – Decorated war veteran Seol Young-su refuses to let the military police cut a branch off of his treasured elm tree. When Jeon Yeong-il is questioned by the military police’s chief on the matter, he his mystified by his “uncle’s” insubordination. This story is about a man “torn apart by contradictions” when he realizes his entire life has been dedicated to a lie. He experiences the rage, sorrow, and shame of an illusion being shattered.
So Near, Yet So Far – Yeong-sam risks his life to visit his dying mother after the government refuses to issue him a travel permit to his home village. Rigid obsession with regulations and how even the smallest symbols can evoke fear.
“They must have trained you well in that village of yours, eh? Properly broken you in. In this society, I tell you, people are like sheep!”
“Are you any different?” Yeong-sam countered. “If you hadn’t been ‘broken in,’ as you put it, would you have managed to live so long?”
Pandemonium – A woman accidentally becomes part of a propaganda video. The government’s report of “happy laughter” is a stark contrast to the chaos that occurred near the filming location. I loved the use of fairy tales in this one.
Hahaha and hohoho, all year round—because of the laughing magic which the old demon used on his slaves. “Why did he use such magic on them? To conceal his evil mistreatment of them, of course, and also to create a deception, saying, ‘This is how happy the people in our garden are.’ And that’s also why he put the fences up, so that the people in other gardens couldn’t see over or come in.
On Stage – The country is still grieving three months after the death of Kim Il-sung. Outlandish displays of emotion are expected at the hundreds of altars scattered around the city. Comrade Inspector Yeong-pyo’s son is in trouble for a second time, this time for being disrespectful during a time of mourning. In a dramatic confrontation, his son compares living in North Korea to a lifetime at drama school. Everyone is forced to live a lie and put on a false front in order to survive. This story also shows why authoritarian regimes are so quick to ban art and quash dissent. Once an idea is planted, it’s impossible to eradicate.
“A sincere, genuine life is only possible for those who have freedom. Where emotions are suppressed and actions monitored, acting only becomes ubiquitous, and so convincing that we even trick ourselves.”
The Red Mushroom – A man implores a journalist to help clear his uncle’s name. A good man who sacrificed his entire life in service to the state has become a scapegoat. In this story, we see how bizarre accusations can be and the futility of fighting the party officials. It was my least favorite, but I still really liked it. (It’s me, not the author! I have a negative Pavlovian response to farming stories thanks to Anna Karenina.)
“In all of creation, the rule is that the more toxic something is, the more pretty and friendly it’s made to look.”
“Afterword: How The Accusation Came Out of North Korea” and “A Note from Do Hee-Yun” give background on the author and reveal how the manuscript was snuck out of North Korea. Some of the biographical details were changed to protect Bandi’s identity. The supplementary material is fascinating! I’m tempted to round up to five stars because I’m so blown away by the story behind the book! Bandi’s stories gave me a more well-rounded view of what it’s like to live day-to-day in North Korea, replacing the caricature that previously existed in my mind. Many of the stories end with a quiet resignation, but the “lightbulb” moments for the characters and the fact this book exists at all gave me hope. A government can restrict people from the outside world, scare them into submission, and suppress dissent, but they can’t crush all imagination and independent thought.
Risking one’s life to resist a system of oppression can be interpreted as having a premonition of that system’s end. In this sense, the writing produced by resistance writers who live within North Korea, exposing the face of the nation to the world, is in itself the beginning of an epoch-making upheaval, showing that cracks are now appearing in the hereditary dictatorship, which has seemed until now an impregnable fortress. – Kim Seong-dong
Do North and South Korea speak the same language? Yes, but not quite by Deborah Smith – A glimpse into Smith’s translation process. It’s interesting that the original manuscript includes 200 words that the average South Korean would be unfamiliar with.
Another interview with Deborah Smith – “I have new translations of Han Kang and Bae Suah coming out in November ’17 and January ’18 respectively” !!!!
Goodreads review by Gustavo – Interesting analysis of The Accusation’s authenticity.