When I began my Reading the World Project, I didn’t suppose for a second that I would be able to include anything from North Korea. Lo and behold, The Accusation was then published, presenting seven stories set during the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and smuggled out of the country by a very brave individual. The stories, which were written from 1989 onwards, have been wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith, and published under the pseudonym of ‘Bandi’. This edition has been published with a rather fascinating afterword, which details how the manuscript left North Korea.
The stories within Bandi’s collection ‘give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships’. From the outset, I found it utterly fascinating. I have learnt as much about North Korea as I can in the past, but anyone who is the slightest bit familiar with the country will know how difficult this is. Evidently, too, one must take into account that the portrait presented of North Korea to the West – in an official capacity, at least – is incredibly skewed. These tales, all of which are based upon real occurrences within North Korea, and encompass people from all walks of life, are therefore all the more important.
The Accusation is filled with curious little details about many aspects of life for ordinary citizens within North Korea. In ‘Record of a Defection’, for instance, the male narrator utters the following when he finds out that his wife does not want children: ‘The whole incident had forced me to remember the one thing I didn’t want to think about, the one thing I could never get away from – my “standing”. And the reason mine was so low? Because my father was a murderer – albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings’. Through details such as this, Bandi effectively, and often shockingly, demonstrates how quick, and not particularly important decisions on the face of it, can haunt a family for generations.
The Accusation provides a powerful insight into modern history. The themes within are varied, ranging as they do from war, forced migration, hopelessness, and familial tragedies linked to the regime, to the terror of the Party, spying, and clandestine writing. Many similarities can be drawn between the regime portrayed here and that within Russia, such as the aspects of collectivisation and rationing. So many elements feel as though they have been taken straight out of Orwell’s 1984, most intensely so with regard to the constant surveillance which every government-owned flat and factory is under.
Here, Bandi has presented an incredibly important book, which speaks out against a hidden and terrifying society. There is such depth to every single one of these stories; such cruelty, such violence, and such pain. The use of different viewpoints serves to show just how far-reaching the regime is. Tense and terrifying, The Accusation should be a must read for everyone.