How can you not be intrigued, enamoured, fascinated, by a book to come out one of the most mysterious and closed countries in the world? Especially a book by an author who is claimed to still reside there, to be working in a public position in a good standing? Bandi is a pseudonym for a North Korean journalist, and The Accusation is his secret collection of short stories that defy the state.
When I received this book, I felt like I was given a secret window to North Korean, to see and learn what life is like there. I feel the same way when I look at current photographs published on Instagram by people who have traveled and lived there. I’ve included some of those here and I highly suggest checking them out.
There are seven stories in The Accusation, all feature different characters, in different aspects of life, but all retelling the same thought: how heavy and consuming life is in North Korea. They fear figureheads, their neighbour, their families and friends. They are on constant guard, wound tight, conscious of how their actions are perceived by others, because they know that any one things that they do or say might be their downfall. They all struggle, but it never seems to be enough, because the bureaucracy of the place always has a way to bring them back down.
For every one of them, it is the same. There is a worker who’s wife takes contraceptives in secret because she cannot bare to bring a child into that world; a woman who is accused of being a traitor because her child is afraid of the mural of Karl Marx and the Great leader; an old man who spent his life working for the state, being promised prosperity to only die alone and broken; a man who returns to his family after spending months in a work camp because he traveled without a permit to see his dying mother; a grandmother who is filled with guilt because her husband and grandchild are injured at a train station while she traveled in the car of the Great Leader; a man who hates his son because the boy sees and cannot ignore all the faults and lies of their lives; and finally, the journalist, who witnesses the destruction of an honest and hardworking man who cannot please the state and is finally persecuted despite his life-long loyalty.
This review has been long in coming (I’ve finished reading the book in early January) but not because there is little to say about the book. Or maybe, that’s exactly why. Because what can I say? For me it is impossible to judge this book like any other. It feels so personal, so tragic, like a hand reaching out for a grasp. I feel that to comment on the writing or the translation would be besides the point, because The Accusation has to be appreciated for what it is: an insight into a world that we can never comprehend.
However, one thing I will mention, is that I would have wanted to see more positive stories – of course, given the nature of how this collection came to be, this is an impossible request. Not that I think that the novel is worse for not having them, it is only that I am curious to know where people find joy in a place like North Korea. Humans have the tendency to find beauty in everything, make reasons to celebrate, have their own traditions that put colour into their lives. Speaking as a child of parents who grew up in Soviet Russia, they were things they loved and things they hated, aspects in which they found beauty and now nostalgia. Of course, Soviet Russia in the 1970s and ‘80s cannot be compared to North Korea, especially in the early 1990s, but I would still love to know what part of their lives they find beautiful.
I really enjoyed this book and the insight that it brought. The afterword of The Accusation tells the story it’s mysterious author, Bandi, and how his book got out of North Korea, into South Korea and finally, soon, into the international market. A journey that took over two years, a collection of stories that were kept saved and hidden for almost two decades until a few fearless people smuggled them out. How much of that is true we could probably never know, but it creates a believable legend for these stories, giving them the status of a treasure. It is absolutely worth the read.
The Accusation is coming March 7th, 2017.
I received an ARC of The Accusation from a Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review. I want to thank House of Anansi Press for providing me with a copy.