****The Accusation

North Korea, flags

photo: (stephan), creative commons license

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.

*****The Orphan Master’s Son

Kim Jong Un, North Korea

Kim Jong Un, the Dear Leader (photo: petersnoopy, Creative Commons License)

By Adam Johnson – A prodigious creative imagination put together this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Few Americans have visited North Korea in recent decades; if they have, they’ve seen little other than what their minders are authorized to show them, and they’ve talked with no one outside their official itinerary. We cannot “see for ourselves” what living in such a massively regulated, brutal nation is like. In such a circumstance, it’s daunting to create a fully developed world, and it would be easy to create fictional characters who are two-dimensional, stereotypic. But Johnson has created such a world and peopled his book with true individuals who act believably, even when what they must do is unbelievably horrifying.

While the reader acquires a bone-chilling sense of North Korean life and how survival requires quick wits and artful deception, in no way does this novel feel like a political tract. What the reader comes to understand are the daily accommodations of action and speech and even thought that the system under Kim Jong Un, the Dear Leader, requires.

The first third of the book is about Jun Do (John Doe), the orphan master’s son who declares he is not an orphan. At various points, Jun Do has chances to escape, to defect to South Korea, to abandon ship in Japan, to hide out in the United States, but he doesn’t take them, in part because of the danger such an action would create for his companions and because (speaking of South Korea) “he was scared that if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who’d gone blind from hunger? That would have been for nothing. Sending another boy instead of himself to clean vats at the paint factory? For nothing.”

Yet the book is rich in both love and humor. Seeing Jun Do cope with the disconnect between reality and the government’s constant diet of lies can be simultaneously amusing and heart-breaking.

In the second part of the book, the narration alternates among several sources, and includes this story told by a young interrogator of political prisoners about the talk every father has with his son, “in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say, but inside, we are still us, we are family”:

father and son

(photo: pixshark)

 I was eight when my father had this talk with me . . . [After denouncing the boy in a terrifying way] . . [m]y father said, “See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If . . . someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it’s not really you. That’s inside. Inside is where the son and the father will always be holding hands.”

Some chapters of this section are told via the official and ubiquitous government loudspeakers, which blare constantly in homes, factories, and public places. The extent to which the population is taken in by these jingoistic broadcasts is unclear, since cracks in the façade of total loyalty to the Dear Leader are dangerous.

Regarding the relentless suffering, one character says, “When the Dear Leader wanted you to lose more, he gave you more to lose.” He gave Jun Do love in the person of actress Sun Moon, and contrary to the Dear Leader’s expectation, love saved them both.

Despite all the paranoia, torture, starvation, slave labor camps, and dark and dripping prison cells, incredibly, I found this beautifully written novel uplifting; it engenders the feeling that the North Koreans will ultimately free themselves from their repressive government because the burden of believing in it will become too great.