“The Accusation” by Bandi


These stories of fiction written by a North Korean writer and published under a pseudonym were smuggled out of the country in 2013. (Some reports say 2013 others 2014) “Bandi” which means “firefly” was born in 1950 and continues to be based in the country and is an official writer for the government. Written in meticulous longhand on the coarse brown manuscript paper used in North Korea, the book — a collection of seven short stories — is a fierce indictment of life in the totalitarian North. The stories closely follow the “seed theory,” a guideline of all North Korean writers, which requires them to structure their writing tightly around a core ideology — though Bandi uses the same device to attack the party line. For instance the stories will portray the indoctrination of the people and yet how forced it is but the people are unable to express themselves (“Pandemonium”), the desperate measures a son takes to meet his dying mother in the village except is condemned to forced labour for not having the required travel permit (“So Near, Yet So Far”), the mother who tries to pacify her easily frightened simpleminded infant but lives in mortal fear of Comrade Secretary discovering that it is the larger-than-life size portraits of Marx and Kim Il-sung that are the triggers (“City of Specters”) and innumerable instances of how food is rationed.  In “Record of a Defection” the narrator’s family is reduced to the wavering class “because my father was a murderer—albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings.” The author’s identity is deliberately concealed even in the note from Do Hee-yun included in the book.  Do Hee-yun is a representative of the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees.

According to the New York Times, “In 2013, the manuscript was smuggled out, hidden among works of propaganda glorifying Kim Il-sung, the country’s founding president and grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong-un. . . . The Accusation was published in South Korea in 2014 by Chogabje.com, a conservative news website and publisher, but failed to gain much attention. Mr. Do persisted, pitching the manuscript to publishers abroad. ” Initially the reception to the stories was lukewarm until the French translation became a sleeper hit. Since then the stories have been translated into 18 languages and published in 20 countries and list is growing steadily. Here is a CNN report of the book reading organised at the border of South Korea and North Korea.

The book has been translated magnificently by award-winning translator Deborah Smith since despite the tough subject the stories read smoothly. On the surface the stories may seem to be acceptable propoganda literature and in no danger of being censored. Yet the off-the-cuff remarks of “starving slaves”, “grain riots”, “ration coupons” or the anger against medals which are given to those who “dedicate themselves solely to the establishment and preservation of socialism” since these useless chunks of iron would not fill stomachs manages to capture the simmering rage of Bandi at the totalitarian regime of North Korea. Every single story ends on a note where the protagonist bitterly realises that there is no escape from the pincer-like grip of the state authorities. Such as in the conclusion of “Record of a Defection”:

There is, of course, great peril in this. We might easily be shot by the coast giard or patrol boat, to be swallowed up like leaves in the wind and waves. And still, knowing this, we choose to bet our lives on this chance. Because we feel that to slide into oblivion would genuinely be better than continuing to live as we have been, persecuted and tormented. If fate intervenes, perhaps the hand of a rescuer might draw us to some new shore. Otherwise, we can only hope that our canoe on the vast blue will mark this land as a barren desert, a place where life withers and dies! 

But the anecdote which sums up the suffocating living conditions of the citizens is in this story shared by the grandmother, Mrs Oh, in “Pandemonium”:

“Once upon a time there was a garden, surrounded on all sides by a great, high fence. In that garden, an old demon ruled by a great, high fence. In that garden, an old demon ruled over thousands upon thousands of slaves. But the surprising thing was that the only sound ever to be heard within those high walls was the sound of merry laughter. Hahaha and hohoho, all year round — becuase of the laughing magic which the old demon used on his slaves. 

“Why did he use such magic on them? To conceal his evil misreatment 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. So, well, think about it. Where in the world might you find such a garden, such a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter?” 

Read The Accusation. It is a terrifyingly seminal publication of 2017 particularly at a moment in history when political winds of Right-wing are blowing globally. Many of the horrors described in these seven stories are only a short step away from what exists in other forward-looking nations, albeit different ideologies.

Bandi The Accusation: Forbidden Stories From Inside North Korea  Serpents Tail, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 250. Rs 599 ( Distributed in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka by Hachette India.)

18 April 2017 

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