“Bandi” is Korean for “firefly”. It is the pseudonym chosen by the writer of the seven short stories and two poems now gathered in The Accusation, translated into English by Deborah Smith.
The pieces were written between 1989 and 1995, during North Korea’s final years under Kim Il-sung, and just after his death in 1994. Indeed, one of the stories, On Stage, is set during the time of public mourning for the Great Leader, when hundreds of altars were set up across Pyongyang. Citizens’ visits to these altars, to lay flowers, were monitored, to check they were showing sufficient grief. Soon, the city was stripped of flowers, and people must run the risks associated with the monsoon season, to go and gather flowers in the countryside:
Now that every flower bed in this city has been stripped bare, now that we have risked poisonous snakes and landslides to bring further tribute from the fields and mountains, can we say that our Great Leader has been suitably mourned, sit back, and rest assured of our loyalty? Absolutely not!
So, what happens when a youth and his girl use a flower-picking expedition to hold hands and share swigs of alcohol? This is a world where such a simple, human display of affection can lead, ultimately, to a man’s suicide.
Despite the time which has elapsed since 1995, Bandi, we are told, is still living and working in North Korea, a member of the state-authorized writers’ association. Two afterwords together explain how his manuscript was smuggled out of North Korea—an account which itself reads like fiction. The first afterword claims The Accusation as an historical first:
nothing like it has emerged in the sixty-eight years since the peninsula was divided…No work denouncing the oppressive, antidemocratic regime of North Korea, by a writer still living in North Korea, has ever before been published.
A note from the publisher at the beginning of the collection explains that beyond what is in the afterwords, they
have no further information about the origins of The Accusation, but believe it to be an important work of North Korean samizdat literature and a unique portrayal of life under a totalitarian dictatorship.
Bandi is a fine writer, whose work can be enjoyed line-by-line, and whose characters movingly struggle to affirm their humanity, in the face of monstrosity.
Bandi apparently never shared his work with anybody within North Korea, so the comparison with samizdat perhaps breaks down. And given the placing of this note, the reader is set up to wonder, immediately, whether these stories really were written in North Korea, by a writer who never made it out. What is the reader to do with these worries? I decided the best strategy was to dismiss them, and to trust that the people in South Korea who helped bring Bandi’s work to world attention, are not engaged in an elaborate hoax.
Even if the history of the pieces is not as claimed, perhaps it doesn’t matter? Fury at a system which insists punishment for dissent can be passed down generations, and between family members, and which forces individuals to accept that false is true, and the unreal is real, or else to pretend to accept these distortions without any hint of complaint, blazes from the pages.
All the stories are powerful and moving denunciations of the misery inflicted on the North Korean people by their leaders. The language throughout is vivid and direct. A street decked out with posters and bunting for mass celebrations looks like “some fierce wild beast, shaking its mane and roaring.” Smoke shivers up from the chimneys. Tree roots resemble dinosaur skeletons.
More menacingly, this is a society in which fear “had to be instilled in you from birth, if you were to survive.” Or where if people weren’t “broken in”, they wouldn’t live long. North Korea is a place where crying can be construed as “an act of rebellion for which… there was only one outcome—a swift and ruthless death.”
Deborah Smith who translated The Vegetarian by Han Kang, the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, renders Bandi’s work in enjoyably colloquial English. A man accused of waving an axe at policeman says: “The fact is that before it all kicked off… me and your aunt had been having a fair old bust-up.” A waiting room in a station is “rammed to the gills.”
All of the stories concern people colliding with the state, and consequently losing their illusions. Each is apparently based on a real incident.
Some of the stories are, in context, almost domestic in nature. A son must think what to do when he is denied a travel permit to visit his dying mother. A mother must think what to do when her toddler becomes terrified of posters of Marx and Kim Il-sung. It turns out to be a bad idea to tell him Marx’s face is that of Eobi, “the fearsome creature who stuffs disobedient children into his sack, and tosses them down a well.”
The terrifying unpredictability of life in North Korea is emphasized. A man drops a crate of rice seedlings, and gets denounced as an “anti-Party, antirevolutionary element.” His whole family pays. A town’s bean paste production drops, and a man who has slaved to bring new land into cultivation likewise gets denounced. Meanwhile, a grandmother, returning home from a visit to her pregnant daughter, gets trapped, with no supplies, and with thousands of others, in a station, because Kim Il-sung is in the vicinity. She makes a break for it, and ends up being presented to the Great Leader, Father of us all. The chance encounter gets exploited for propaganda purposes, to show that the Great Leader’s love for his people is higher than the heavens, and deeper than the seas.
The everyday hardships of life in North Korea are conjured throughout. Buildings are either too hot, or too cold; people are often freezing. We are told Bandi began to compile his manuscript in response to the famine of the early to mid-1990s, and in his stories hunger is always lurking.
In his closing poem In place of acknowledgements, Bandi begs the reader to read his words. I hope you do so, not only from solidarity with him, or for moral and political reasons, but because, too, he is a fine writer, whose work can be enjoyed line-by-line, and whose characters movingly struggle to affirm their humanity, in the face of monstrosity.