Bandi – The Accusation (2017)

A unique collection of stories smuggled out of North Korea provide a unique glimpse of the repressive nature of daily life, the first publication in the west from a writer who still lives there.

It takes just seven short stories to feel the foreboding and dread that accompanies almost any interaction with authority in a frozen state, and understand how lack of freedom directly translates into daily misery. For the powerless, every day brings the threat of disaster:

Some days it seems life is just a never-ending obstacle course. Each day brings some new setback, tying my stomach in knots”

A black mark doesn’t just ruin one life, it becomes a hereditary disease denying hope and opportunity to entire families:

A blameless child with his whole life already mapped out, forced to follow in his parents’ footsteps, step by stumbling step, along that same route of blood and tears.”

These are stories of hard workers disillusioned with years of promised prosperity, people condemned by a word out of place or a related to someone who has, journalists ground down by the propaganda they are forced to write, while everywhere corruption and abusive officials threaten to destroy lives, where “even crying could be construed as an act of rebellion”. Meanwhile, chaos, cold, hunger and poverty reign,  as those in power.

Why you should read it: These stories are essential reading to understand how low the currency of humanity falls in the absence of basic freedom.

People turn against each other to survive. It is a world of suspicion and spying, like in East Germany, where anyone else could be a spy placed by the authorities playing a game of cat and mouse with the lives of the people. When Kim Il-sung travels, all trains are cancelled, causing havoc for everyone else, but nobody dares complain :

The “cats” would be all around the station just now, even inside the waiting room, scattered among the mice like the seeds in a squash. In all likelihood, the cats would pretend to share the sufferings of the mice next to them.”

Party offices, buildings and waiting-rooms are places of fear, and hatred, where “a breeze of disappointment ran through the room like a breeze rustling the leaves of a tree”, and when even a permit to travel to another town leaves to dehumanising scorn at the hands of officialdom:

A sigh of defeat escaped form deep inside Myeong-chol, as though something had been snuffed out.”

Poignant stories that show the fragility of powerless characters in the arbitrary whims of the powerful are told with humanity and often a stoic sense of humour of the suffering, asking if the cold office “would be thankful for the warmth of its workers, as opposed to the other way around”.

What makes this book so unique is that it is written by someone who lived, and continues to live, those experiences, and that rawness is felt in the telling. There is that sense of revelation, of exposure of lies for people who believed. As friends comparing notes of separate humiliations received at the hands of officialdom ask themselves why they believed:

“Because you were deceived by a mask, a front, like me. Deceived by those slogans – ‘Equality’; ‘Democracy’; ‘The People Are the Masters of History’-the ones that looked nice enough on the surface, but had the knife of dictatorship underneath.””

Read it if you liked: These stories follow in the tradition of the literature of totalitarian states, such as Danilo Kis’s A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants or Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

Rating: **



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