To be able to publish one’s short stories outside North Korea while residing within its very totalitarian walls is a feat in itself, and one that takes immense courage. But what makes Bandi’s collection of short stories even more exceptional is its portrayal of the everyday lives of those who live in and under a communist regime — circumstances seemingly mundane are narrated in a strong dissident voice that refuses to bow down to the “naturalness” of their diurnal oppression.
My overall rating : 14/15
Bandi (반디) — a pseudonym which translates to firefly — wrote the seven short stories of the collection while in the North in the course of seven years (1989 – 1995). Included as well in his original manuscript are two succinct but powerful poems that serve as preface and acknowledgements to this edition. While the novellas are not directly linked to each other in terms of characters or narrative, they are united by two overarching themes : on one hand, a biting criticism of the North Korean regime, and on the other, the shattering of the peoples’ idyllic illusion of their society in face of the regime’s brutality. Ultimately, these stories constitute Bandi’s ultimate accusation and rebellion against the cruel dictatorship he himself lives in.
The revolutionary stance of this work is literal as it is symbolic. At the beginning, each story appears to be a simple compte-rendu of the daily, habitual woes of humanity. In “Record of a Defection”, a husband finds out that her wife has been secretly taking contraceptive pills. “So Near Yet So Far” is about a son trying to go back to the province to visit his sick mother. A mother struggles with her child’s traumatism in “City of Specters”. And in “Pandemonium”, a girl and her grandparents get stuck waiting for a train in the station. But soon enough, the readers realize these are just masks that shroud the realities of these characters : the wife is in fact taking the pills in order to protect her husband who has been tagged a “traitor” to the Party ; the son is unable to see her mother in the countryside because of the cold border control officers ; at the root of a child’s traumatism is the fear of the portraits of Marx and the Great Leader — a fear that has outwardly produced children out of every inhabitant ; and the grandparents realize that they are stuck at the station, injured during a mass chaos, simply because the Great Leader happened to be passing by the route.
In each story, the oppression is visible and disturbing. Those whose families have a history of loyalty towards the Party are rewarded, while those whose ancestors who, at one point in time, made even a single slightly off remark, are branded as reactionaries. And yet, even those who come from good families still walk on egg shells, like “Rabbits with Three Burrows” who are always careful not to offend or go against the regime. Because they all know a single mistake changes everything and when push comes to shove, no one is safe from punishment.
In the National Day of Celebration, the radio broadcasts that all inhabitants of Pyongyang must be present in the square. And in 35 minutes, every single one was indeed there “without exception”. “What terrifying force had caused this city to give birth to such an incomprehensible upheaval?” writes Bandi. The child’s fear of the specters of Marx and the Great Leader serves to symbolize this “terrifying force” that pushes people to act the way they’re supposed to act. It is a “stage truth” — they cry when they need to and laugh when they are expected to. The fear within the citizens produce a set of acting skills that allow them to safely be part of the society. Sometimes, this fear and the theatrical dispositions they generate, become so inculcated, the people forget they were acting in the first place.
“Reader! / I beg you to read my words.”– Bandi
A poignant, heart-breaking tour de force, this collection demonstrates the literary prowess of Bandi, while at the same time serving as a light of hope that perhaps, someday, someone will read, absorb and understand their realities.
A few notes
- I am giving this a score of 14 over 15 because of the order of the stories. In my opinion, the collection ended with a novella that is not as powerful as the first. I am oblivious as to how they decided to structure these stories (given that they were evidently non-chronological). It appears though, at least to me, that “On Stage” would have given a more meaningful ending to the anthology.
- Acclaim should also go to the translator of this book, Deborah Smith. Incidentally, she also translated the widely celebrated novel The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
- This edition provides a comprehensive and critical background as to how Bandi was able to publish The Accusation outside his home country.