By Bandi – Dubbed “the Solzhenitsyn of Pyongyang,” Bandi is the pseudonym of a dissident North Korean author, and these are the first published stories written by a person still living under that repressive regime.
The seven stories in this collection were written between 1989 and 1995, a particularly bleak period at the start of a severe five-year famine, when Great Leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father ruled the country. Like the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, the stories share commonalities both in the psychological challenges their protagonists face and in the external environment they must negotiate. These common themes create an indelible impression of Bandi’s world.
Paranoia is prominent. A person who deviates from expectations in any way or complains about anything, significant or trivial, risks being observed, reported, and denounced. The actor in the story “On Stage” titles Act One of his satirical—and dangerous—skit: “It Hurts, Hahaha,” and Act Two: “It Tickles, Boohoo!”—to underscore how people must act according to expectations and contrary to their true feelings. This stunt, predictably, ends in disgrace.
Denunciation can lead to banishment from the city to a life of extreme privation in the country, even death. But death does not end a family’s downfall. A father’s error curtails the educational and occupational prospects for his children and grandchildren, as described in the collection’s first story, “Record of a Defection,” in which a family risks everything to try to escape this collective fate.
Winters are bitter, food is never plentiful, and loudspeakers harangue the population. Their constantly blaring messages from the government are full of “alternative facts.”
The stories were translated by Deborah Smith, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Bandi’s writing style is markedly different from that of Western fiction, with little description and with character development mainly through action and dialog. This bracing style fits material with so much implicit drama and heartache. (For a more immersive approach, you might read the richly plotted Pulitzer Prize-winning Adam Johnson novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which also puts North Korea’s absurdities and ironies on full display.)
Do Bandi’s stories give the impression that the North Korean people recognize the peculiar nature of their system and its injustices? Absolutely. And if the people are called upon to fulfill some outrageous government edict, will they break their backs trying to do so? Absolutely.
The story of how the book came to be smuggled out of the country and ultimately found its way into print is an exciting tale in itself, included as an afterword. For that heroic effort alone, the book is worthy of attention. It also can’t hurt to foster greater understanding of the suffering that ensues when totalitarian leadership proceeds to its natural end-state. The North Korea Bandi describes is one Westerners may have difficulty comprehending, yet the fact that in 2017 it exists at all proves it is not impossible.