Translated from the Korean by last year’s Man Booker International Prize winner Deborah Smith ‘The Accusation’ by Bandi is a collection of seven short stories by a pseudonymous author who reportedly still lives in North Korea and works as an official writer for the government. Written in the early 1990s at a time when the country was gripped by famine, it is said that Bandi’s stories were eventually smuggled into South Korea by a relative who hid sheets of paper in a copy of ‘The Selected Works of Kim Il-sung’. While there have been many accounts of life in North Korea published by defectors, a work of fiction by an author still living in one of the most secretive countries in the world is exceptionally rare.
A recurring theme throughout the collection is paranoia and the stories explore what happens to someone who displeases the Party, more often than not inadvertently in a seemingly minor way, and the long-term consequences it has for their entire family for generations, most notably in ‘Record of a Defection’. Another memorable tale is ‘The City of Specters’ about a mother whose young son is terrified of the large portraits of Karl Marx and Kim Il-sung outside their apartment window, believing them to be monsters from Korean myths. She draws the curtains to block them from view but the authorities quickly notice the change which puts all of them in danger. In ‘The Red Mushroom’, a bean paste factory is said to be in full production by Party officials yet the reality is that there are no beans and the factory manager therefore inevitably “fails”.
The unconventional narrative style with relatively little focus on characterisation suggests that the author doesn’t have literary reference points aside from what is likely to be available in North Korea. However, like other examples of dissident literature, there is some satire shrouded in metaphor such as ‘Life of a Swift Seed’ about a Communist war hero who plants an elm tree to commemorate a fellow soldier but the tree is later set to be cut down to make way for a new power line leaving him disillusioned. At the same time, although it’s difficult to fully assess the degree of realism or authenticity in these stories, there is also much more outright criticism than I was expecting, especially considering the enormous risks Bandi has taken in putting these stories down on paper.
The mysterious circumstances of Bandi’s life are undoubtedly fascinating, but I also hope this doesn’t overshadow the stories themselves. As well as novels, short story collections are eligible for the Man Booker International Prize and this remarkable book may well appear on the longlist next month. ‘The Accusation’ will be published in the UK on 2nd March. Many thanks to Grove Atlantic for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.