The Accusation by Bandi translated by Deborah Smith

Hidden behind the curtain…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of seven short stories written between 1989 and 1995 under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea. The author’s identity remains secret, since he still lives in the country – his pseudonym means “firefly”. He is, or perhaps was, part of the official writers’ association, writing articles approved by the regime, but in his own time he began secretly to write these stories, showing a different version of daily life under this extreme form of totalitarianism. When his niece decided to defect to the West, he asked her to take the stories with her, but she wisely said she would instead send for them once she reached safety. She later enlisted the help of a human rights worker to have them smuggled out of the country.

The stories are strongly polemical, as would be expected under the circumstances, and highly critical of the dehumanisation under the regime, where every aspect of people’s lives and even thoughts are dictated and controlled through fear, and truth is manipulated in true Orwellian fashion.

The quality of the stories is distinctly variable, with some of them being too polemical to make for good fiction. They are often worthy but obvious, occasionally over-wrought, and not always very well-written. However, some of them, especially the middle ones, reach a higher level, full of power and emotion. But the interest of this collection is not so much the literary side of it, but the glimpse it gives us of what it’s like to live under this regime which seems, if anything, to be getting even more extreme with each passing year.

The current sad little nutter tyrant, Kim Jong-un, and a few of his toys…

Here’s a flavour of a couple of the ones that most impressed me:

Life of a Swift Steed – this tells the story of a man who believed in the revolution in its early days, and to celebrate the beginnings of this new world, planted an elm tree, around which he gradually created a fable that he passed on to the children in his area. As the tree grew to maturity, he believed, so would the socialist state. Everyone would eat meat and white rice, and wear silk. He clung to the fable even when reality turned out to be vastly different. But now he’s old and poor, the weather is freezing and there is no fuel. And the state wants to chop down the tree to make way for power lines. This one is very well written, and makes its point through emotion rather than overt polemics – I found it a moving read, reminding us that these regimes arise out of hopes and dreams, making their subsequent distortion into totalitarianism even more tragic.

So Near, Yet So Far – a man has received news that his mother is dying, but the state will not give him the travel permit he needs to visit her for one last time. Having spent his life obeying every dictate of the regime – doing his military service, then being told where he should live, what he should work at, etc. – he is finally provoked into breaking the rules, and tries to make the journey illicitly. As the rather trite title suggests, he gets heartbreakingly close to his mother’s village when he is caught. The punishment is harsh, but it’s the guilt and shame that cause him most pain. The feeling of utter helplessness of the individual caught up in an uncaring and faceless system is very well done, and again makes this story a deeply emotional and powerful one.

So there’s plenty here to make the book worth reading for its content as well as its origins. Like many collections, I found reading the stories one after the other meant that they gradually began to acquire a sameness which made the later ones lose power. Had I not been reading for review, I would have left longer gaps between reading each one, to avoid this effect. But they provide a unique insight into this regime from a personal level – so often we are only aware of the high level politics, and it’s easy to forget how each decision we make in dealing with dictators, in terms of sanctions or military action, impacts profoundly on those much further down the social order. An interesting little collection, the importance of which transcends the stories themselves.

Picture credit: Reuters
When the Great Leader says clap, you clap…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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50 thoughts on “The Accusation by Bandi translated by Deborah Smith

  1. Oooh this looks very interesting indeed. It’s not often that the West gets any insight into the strange and shadowy world of North Korea. Whenever the occasional news story from their press slips out it’s always fascinating – and would be funny if it were not so terrifying. There was one where the little fat man had announced that he had discovered the colony of unicorns from which all of North Korea was born and it was presented as actual news! Makes Trump seem credible… 😉

    • Haha! Oh, no, don’t tell the Trump-ets or they’ll all be out hunting unicorns with their boy toy assault rifles! 😉 Yes, it was an interesting look at that kind of life from someone actually living it – North Korea must be the worst of the lot of these kind of regimes, I think! Plus, what is it with fascists and funny hair-dos??

      • That’s a bloody good point about the hair-dos – this should be a lesson from history; never elect anyone who has ridiculous hair, they are bound to be fascist and most likely criminally insane. Does Trump still have fans? I would have thought that by now even the most ridiculous of his supporters are shaking their heads in disbelief. Either that, or popping down to the barbers to get amusing haircuts… 😉

        • Silly little moustaches are another surefire indicator of fascist tendencies! Haha! Amazingly it appears he does – of course, they only watch ultra right-wing fantasy news, where in their world Barack is Kenyan and Michelle is apparently a man in drag! *shakes head despairingly* Now Barack’s hair was always beautifully neat!

  2. This sounds like a very important read to get a better view on a certain point of the world rather than being a pure literary work. I agree that maybe leaving more time between the stories might have helped 🙂 Fab review!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, sometimes rushing to read for reviews doesn’t work for some books, especially short stories. But this one is definitely worth readin even if some of the stories are less good than others.

  3. We used to have some North Korean students studying French and English in the late 1980s – when Romania was still a ‘safe’ Communist haven… and they were fascinating to us. Because although we lived under the same kind of regime, they had far fewer opportunities to see different things, and were more thoroughly brainwashed. So this is a fascinating and rare insight into one of the most extreme anti-intellectual, anti-curiosity operating system in the world.

    • Yes, stirctly as an outsider who knows nothing about it except from books and news, North Korea definitely seems like the most extreme example of these kinds of totalitarian regimes, and sadly no sign of it breaking down any time soon. These storeis are fascinating partly because of their rarity – getting it direct from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, of what it’s actually like for the people living there. Reminded me to remember the people next time I’m thinking we should just bomb the country or blockade them…

    • Ah, I hadn’t realised it was the same translator! I have The Vegetarian on my Kindle but haven’t got around to it yet. The translation of this one was very good, I thought.

  4. Absolutely fascinating, FictionFan! I’m intrigued as much by the story behind the stories as I am by the collection itself. And it does make me wonder what it’s like – from their perspective, to live in that regime. What a rare opportunity to read something like this.

    • Yes, I found the story of how the stories got out fascinating too – there’s an afterword in the book that goes into it in more depth than I’ve summarised here. It was an intriguing glimpse at life under the regime from the horse’s mouth, so to speak – too easy to forget the people when we’re wondering how to stop the idiot at the top from blowing up the world…

  5. I’m glad books like this exist to remind us of the freedoms we sometimes take for granted that others may not have. I’m also grateful for the courage of the author to speak out in the midst of this oppression. Thank you for bringing this book to our attention.

    • Yes, indeed! I often get very frustrated with democracy especially after some of the recent disastrous decisions, but we’re still vastly better off than some countries. I do hope the publicity doesn’t lead the regime to discover the author’s identity – a very brave man.

  6. What an interesting collection of stories for sure! On another note, I finished The Last Girl by Jane Casey yesterday which was your recommendation when I asked where to start to have Josh involved…I loved it! Oh Josh…he’s so wrong but I loved his character and Maeve as well. I’ve already downloaded the next book in the series:) Great rec thank you!!

    • This collection is definitely worth reading. Oh, I’m so glad to hear you loved it! Haha! I know – really, we should all hate Josh, but there’s something about him that makes you feel he’s redeemable! I hope you enjoy the rest just as much, and I do recommend the pre-Josh books too – they have more about the lovely Rob in them… 😀 Thanks for letting me know!

  7. It’s so strange to know that there’s still a virtually unknown country in this hyper-connected world. I will look for this collection; ever since reading The Orphan Master’s Son, I’ve been fascinated by North Korea.

    • Isn’t it? It’s like a throwback to the middle of the last century, and yet still no sign really of the regime weakening. Tragic. I didn’t realise The Orphan Master’s Son was about North Korea – must check it out! Thanks for mentioning it, and I hope you enjoy this one if you get a chance to read it. 😀

  8. This doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I can see the importance of a collection like it. After all, how would the world know what goes on in other parts if somebody didn’t write it down? I’ve always appreciated the burden we writers have to preserve things for posterity. Once again, FF, an outstanding review and excellent photos to accompany it!

    • Thanks, Debbie! 😀 Yes, a very brave man to risk it just to let the world know what’s going on – and a really intriguing glimpse of a life that thankfully most of us will never experience.

  9. Wow…..this looks like an interesting read to get an insider perspective of the life in North Korea which is so secretly guarded by the dictatorial regime. I also love the translations of Deborah Smith. Will definitely read this book!

    • Yes, it really is an intriguing glimpse at what day-to-day life is actually like for the people living under what must be one of the worst regimes on earth – and still no real sign of it weakening. I hadn’t come across Deborah Smith before, but I thought the translation of this was very good. I hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to read it. 🙂

        • That one looks pretty harrowing, but interesting too – thanks for the recommendation! I also have The Vegetarian sitting on my Kindle, which someone else mentioned is translated by Deborah Smith too, so I’ll try to get to it soon. 🙂

  10. Interesting in itself, and also relevant to your Russian reading, where writers faced the same sort of challenges. I don’t think I have read anything about post-war Korea: this might be a good place to start.

    • Yes, I’m actually toying with including it as one of the books read for the challenge, though in truth I get the feeling that this regime is even worse for writers and artists than the USSR, where they at least had a decent lifestyle if they were willing to tolerate the restrictions. Seems to me no-one gets to have a decent lifestyle in North Korea. Excpet the Great Leader and his cronies, of course…

  11. I like how honest you are about this book’s faults. Sometimes, when we read an important book like this one, we lose sight of whether the writing is good or not. So, a very balanced review, thank you for that. And of course, something we should all think about, and try to read more of!

    • Thank you! Yes, I think sometimes being honest about the faults of books like these feels cruel, and I was very conscious that he didn’t have the benefits of beta-readers and editors and so on that pampered western writers take for granted. But even the less good stories are worth reading for the unique insight they give into life under this horrendous regime…

  12. I have also just read this and was fascinated by the back story. I agree the literary quality of the stories is rather variable – nothing like the controlled brilliance of Han Kang (also translated by Deborah Smith), but I was also aware of the difficulty of separating this from the intense repression of the arts and of expression in North Korea. I’ve seen comparisons between this and censored Russian writers, but I know more about the culture of philosophical and satirical fiction in pre-Soviet Russia; I have no idea if there is a similar tradition in North Korea. All in all, I found it a very thought-provoking read, thank you for your review which has helped me clarify some of my own impressions on first reading.

    • Yes, I read your review yesterday and felt our reactions to this one were very similar. I haven’t read Han Kang yet, though The Vegetarian is sitting on my Kindle, and I hadn’t made the connection re the translator. I actually felt the repression of writers and the arts in general seems even worse in N Korea than at the height of the USSR – at least there writers had a reasonable lifestyle so long as they conformed, but it seems no one has a decent lifestyle in N Korea, sadly. And no sign of the regime weakening unfortunately. I agree – a thought-provoking and very worthwhile collection.

  13. Sounds like a sad and fascinating read. I’ve read a memoir from a North Korean defector as well as some fiction about North Korea but never fiction by a North Korean, which would definitely shines different light on this strange country.

    • It is, both. I don’t think I’ve read anything else about North Korea, except history books, but they’re always about N Korea as the enemy. This is a good reminder that the regime may be our enemy, but the people surely aren’t…

  14. Sad. We are so lucky and we don’t know it, whinging about stuff that isn’t important. I love the propaganda poster-style art on the cover (think I’ve mentioned that once or twice already) but after reading your review the falseness seems particularly cruel. Good luck to Firefly.

    • I know – and it didn’t feel at all as if he was exaggerating. That’s the thing – a lot of the propaganda art is appealing, and so are a lot of the slogans. I can quite see how easy it must be to get carried away with enthusiasm for these revolutions in the beginning…

    • How interesting! I suppose it’s a bit like the Berlin wall – people on either side of the fence related to each other and so on. Hard to believe it’s been going on since WW2…

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