It’s rare for me to feel that I owe it to a writer to read their book but the anonymous North Korean author of The Accusation risked his life to get it published, and continues to do so. Bandi, which translates as firefly, still lives and works in North Korea. Should he be unmasked he would undoubtedly be executed. His short story collection was first published in South Korea after being smuggled out of his own country. As the Afterword urges: ‘This work should be heard as an earnest entreaty to shine a spotlight on North Korea’s oppressive regime’
The Accusation comprises seven stories, each based on a real situation occurring between 1989 and 1995. In ‘City of Spectres’ a family faces dire consequences after the mother’s attempts to hide their toddler’s hysterical terror of Karl Marx and Kim Il-Sung’s images which adorn Pyongyang’s main square in celebration of National Day. ‘Life of a Swift Steed’ sees an old man who once championed the idea of a Communist North Korea where all is plentiful reveal his shattered illusions the day he receives yet another medal commemorating his service. In ‘So Near, Yet So Far’ a man, desperate to see his dying mother, flouts draconian travel regulations and pays a brutal price for it while ‘Pandemonium’ sees a grandmother’s choice of myth to entertain her granddaughter after a surreal meeting with the Great Leader neatly mirror her own country’s plight. I could describe all seven, but you should read them for yourself
Bandi’s stories reveal a world ruled by the whim of a capricious all-powerful regime in which guilt by association is punished for generations and the slightest perception of disrespect is met with harsh retribution. Unquestioning obedience is demanded, the smallest transgression provoking vengeance. Shortages are endemic: bean paste is made from acorns, stoves fuelled by sawdust. Officialdom’s callousness in the face of loss and pain contrasts with the compassion and concern of ordinary people for their friends and family, even for acquaintances despite the constant threat of spies in their midst. Almost as if in defiance of their dour subject, these stories have a rich vein of humour running through them, a sharp satirical wit: Died at her new place of residence, from resentment toward her husband’s punishment declares one man’s file sourly.
The collection’s Afterword provides a little context for both its author and his country. Reading it makes me shiver. Long may this brave man’s identity be preserved. He’s risked so much to shine a light into his strange, frightening country. We owe it to him to read his stories and take note.