OK so firstly, read this book. Just read it.
Disclaimer: This book is probably worth more than my idiot opinions of it, but whoops, you’re getting them anyway.
So, The Accusation is a collection of seven short stories (and foreword and acknowledgements poems) smuggled out of North Korea in a series of events that could easily serve as an eighth short story. The author name is a pseudonym, of course, and because the North Korean regime is horrifying, the stories are from the 1990s and deal with life under Kim Il-Sung. They’ve only just got out, this one very small snapshot of life under the world’s most repressive and oppressive regime, and this one very small part of a larger, frustrated body of work that we may never get to see. Life there might have changed by now. (There are more recent works on North Korea out there, in terms of the time they’re piecing together, but I haven’t read them because I am terrible.)
I can understand if you think I’m going to praise this book to the skies purely because of the circumstances in which it was written and finally published and omg have you never heard of death of the author amirite, but the truth is, when I first started reading, I thought it read like propaganda. Understandably, right? When a work (especially) of fiction wears its political heart so openly on its sleeve, our reaction is to assume it’s selling us something. Which, yeah, it is.
The translation is by Deborah Smith, the award-winning translator of The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which I am yet to read because I’m terrible, and it reads very much like a translation. As I admittedly haven’t read much Korean fiction or non-fiction from either North or South (and definitely not in Korean, which is a language [two languages?] that may as well be Martian to me), or any of Smith’s other work, I don’t know if this is a deliberate choice or just her style, but it did have the effect of 1. reminding me frequently of the original author, 2. reminding me that this is all based in a part of the world that I am not familiar with but which is nevertheless real, and 3. letting the author’s own words and feelings shine through. It uses unfamiliar similes (the sun setting like a pea rolling off a monk’s head!) and cultural touchstones (the rabbit with three burrows) and reads at times with a sort of transparent melancholy that’s sort of passé as a literary feature in Western literature (not that we don’t feel the feeling, but that writing about it so openly is currently out of fashion, artistically).
But what I found the most interesting was where I found it similar to things I know. The humour and a lot of the style, first of all, is the absurdist black comedy that seems to come out of a lot of oppressive regimes. Why always this particular brand of humour? Because it’s oblique enough? Because you have to laugh or else you’d cry? Because the regime, whichever regime it is, can’t stand being laughed at? Because the reality really is so absurd, so surreal?
Another detail that jumped out at me was in the story Life of a Swift Steed. As one of the thousands of people who studied Animal Farm for her GCSEs, I accepted the link between Seol Yong-su and Boxer, the horse in Orwell’s work, without question. Both hardworking, good-natured, big-hearted believers who are betrayed time and again. And of course, the horse link. And then I realised that there’s no way Animal Farm is available anywhere in North Korea. No way. I mean, right?
The stories all deal with various characters’ awakenings to the reality of North Korea’s regime, and Bandi varies his main characters, from poor farmers to disgraced Party members to rising stars to firm believers and everyone in between, to show as many cracks as possible. He shows a spectrum of acceptance and denial of the reality. And he shows how the regime keeps people under its control.
I waxed lyrical on The Hunger Games a few posts ago, and the way that the effectiveness comes through in the unfairness of the ruling power and the shifting goalposts. And yes, since you’re asking, I did feel quite stupid after having read The Accusation. The real North Korea as shown through Bandi’s stories turns all that up to 11. The Hunger Games is a different type of dystopia-fic – fictional of course, first of all – with small areas of slack built in because if Katniss can’t break the rules regularly then she wouldn’t have the skillset she needs to survive. North Korea makes no such allowances (and is real!). Bandi portrays a world where people are punished not only for their own actions, but for the actions of people they can’t control – even a sickly child’s ridiculous fears, even the timing and nature of that child’s illnesses, even the parents who committed their laughable crimes before you were born. They’re punished for actions that would have won them praise if the regime hadn’t decided it wanted to punish them. They’re punished for the survival mechanisms that allow them to serve the regime. Kindness, loyalty, empathy. Too much of any of these things aimed in the wrong direction is trouble.
Bandi’s open, seemingly transparent style is deceptive, too. It seems straightforward, with regular “as you know, Bob” digressions and explanations, easy metaphors and callbacks, but you learn to see past the simple exteriors of the non-viewpoint characters to their own worlds of hidden nuance. The contradiction between saying and doing forms a key part of several of the stories, but not just as presented to the reader, but the way things said and things done are received and reacted to by other characters. In North Korea, ‘doing’ counts for nothing. Solving problems, being a hero, dedicating your life to the Party – these things are treated cheaply. More important is ‘saying’ – crocodile tears (taking this as an emotionless performative action), nonsense newspaper articles on how broken things are definitely fixed and working, the words that twist someone’s motives and warp their future.
Another thing that comes out is the unsustainability of such a regime. Its flaw is built into itself. You simply cannot put this amount of fear on people without breaking the illusion.
It’s inhumane, and absurd, and in many ways pathetic (like a thousand metre tall baby monster’s tantrums are pathetic), and it casts a particularly unflattering light on the sorts of people who would say “We do not seek a regime change in North Korea. We are not seeking the collapse of the regime.”
Why not? What about it is worth preserving? Imagine what these human lives could be if they weren’t single-mindedly focused on not being murdered by a madman. Sure, happy lives don’t make for good stories, but if we have to trade the stories for the lives then…