Over the past few years, I’ve managed to cover a fair amount of Korean fiction, but virtually all of that has come from south of the 38th parallel (with good reason, of course). In fact, while several books have mentioned the divided state of the peninsula, the only actual North Korean fiction I’d read until now was a short story in the Modern Korean Fiction collection. Luckily, a recent release has offered insights from across the border, with a collection of stories set in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and, more importantly, written by someone actually living there. We’ve all heard the propaganda and rumours – let’s find out what life in the world’s most secretive society is really like…
The Accusation (translated by Deborah Smith, published by Serpent’s Tail) is a collection of seven longish stories published in South Korea after the original manuscript was smuggled out of the North. The writer is said to be a member of the Chosun Writer’s League Central Committee, but having become disillusioned with life in his home country, he decided to write pieces that could never be published there (and would probably lose him his life if discovered). In a poem used as a preface, he explains his choice of pseudonym, Bandi (meaning ‘firefly’):
That old man of Europe with his bristling beard
Claimed that capitalism is a pitch-black realm
While communism is a world of light.
I, Bandi, of this so-called world of light,
Fated to shine only in a world of darkness,
Denounce in front of the whole world
That light which is truly fathomless darkness,
Black as a moonless night at the year’s end
p.vii (Serpent’s Tail, 2017)
It’s a rather apt choice of name. With much of North Korean society shrouded in secrecy, it takes an insider to focus the light on what really happens there.
Of the themes running through the collection, perhaps the most obvious is that of a Korean ‘mark of Cain’, with upstanding citizens ruined (even generations later) by the behaviour of a family member. An example of this is offered in the opening piece, ‘Record of a Defection’, when a man suspicious of his wife discovers on reading her diary that her behaviour is caused by his own past:
Class 149! I cringed to hear it spoken out loud. Those words were enough to strike terror into any listener. Even the seal used to stamp the document seemed not some innocuous wax stick but an iron brand, heated in flames and seared indelibly onto the rumps of livestock. It had been used to brand slaves too, in the old days; now Min-hyuk’s father and uncle, even young Min-hyuk himself, bore its mark. Not merely on the skin, but biting deep into the flesh.
‘Record of a Defection’, p.28
Once the writer realises that even his nephew is tarred by association, he decides that the family’s only choice is to leave the country, or perish in the attempt.
The final story, ‘The Red Mushroom’, revolves around a similar concept. A journalist becomes involved in the story of an agriculturalist attempting to reclaim land in the mountains for the community and is appalled when the man is hung out to dry when nature turns against him. The man, a former scientist, was in exile from the capital after the discovery of a relative’s flight to the south, and this final attempt to regain the state’s favour literally crumbles into dust. The title is apt, comparing the poisonous mushrooms growing in the mountains with the red-brick government office the main character sees for the first time at the end of the story (and, tellingly, with communism itself…).
Other stories focus on daily life in North Korea and the difficulties this entails for the average citizen. In ‘City of Specters’, the writer describes the intense preparations for the National Day celebrations and parade, with one woman finding out the hard way that there are no excuses for a lack of enthusiasm, no matter what your background. ‘Pandemonium’, meanwhile, focuses on an elderly couple and a grandchild caught up in the turmoil of transport cancellations (owing to a high-level visit). The result is a series of accidents and injuries, yet the old woman sees a very different side of life when she hitches a lift with a very familiar face.
This idea of ordinary lives frustrated by bureaucratic obstacles is especially prominent in ‘So Near, Yet So Far’. A man returns home after weeks of absence, telling his wife of his desperate (and foolish) attempt to reach his mother before her death. Having failed to obtain a pass to travel to the region, he ends up taking a dangerous (and eventually futile) trip that ends with severe consequences. The beating is bad enough, but you sense that his real problems are only just beginning.
However, even for those with a position on the inside, life isn’t always easy. ‘Life of a Swift Steed’ sees a low-level official forced to investigate a family friend after he threatens officials wanting to prune his elm tree. There’s a story behind the story, of course, with the old, faithful servant of the state left looking at all his medals and wondering what use they are if he can’t even have a decent meal. Similarly, the main character of ‘On Stage’ must interrogate his son, who has been accused of decadent behaviour (drinking and hand-holding…) during the mourning period for the Great Leader. While he’s initially angry with the youth, he learns that there’s more to the story than meets the eye, receiving a withering blast of outrage when he confronts him:
“Don’t you see how miserable it all is? How wretched? People who are so eager to catch others out, they’ll even scrabble around after rubbish like this.” He gestured angrily toward the bottle at his feet. “A sincere, genuine life is possible only for those who have freedom. Where emotions are suppressed and actions monitored, acting only becomes ubiquitous, and so convincing that we even trick ourselves.”
‘On Stage’, pp.174/5
It’s here that we see how heartbreaking it can be for people who truly believe in the regime. Bandi knows all too well how to describe the moment when the penny drops, and they see that what they believed in is a lie…
The stories all date from the nineties, a time of particular hardship in North Korea, and their descriptions of denunciations and betrayal are guaranteed to fascinate the western reader. The Accusation certainly reads well, with Smith producing an excellent text in English, with just the right mix of natural English and hints of Korean structures and style. The stories show the writer’s liking for frame narratives, and in each case the ideas are cleverly integrated by the end of the story.
If I were to play devil’s advocate, though, I’d say that the collection can be a little too melodramatic at times, with the idea of the good people thwarted by the system wearing a little thin. Ironically, there are hints of a communist style here, with liberal exaggeration (especially the sudden death from heartbreak of those exiled from Pyongyang), and a sense that Bandi is using the North’s own literary style and culture to critique it. In addition, for anyone with a fair grounding in Korean literature (or a passing knowledge of world affairs), there’s nothing earth-shatteringly surprising here, merely confirmation of what we already knew or suspected.
Still, The Accusation is an excellent collection, and in truth the writing is only a small part of the story here – it’s a privilege to read the work of a man risking his life to critique his regime through literature. The cover proudly displays the ‘Winner English PEN Award’ logo, and this is exactly what PEN should be all about. In bringing marginalised voices into our lives, these writers and works shine a light on the darkest of places, and as Bandi himself says, they don’t come much darker than the DPRK…