“Citizens, your attention. The ceremony will proceed as planned. All participants must, without exception, present themselves at their designated assembly point.”
This broadcast on radio channel 3 shrilled its message into the city’s collective eardrum. From the subways and apartment buildings, underground stations and bus stop shelters, beneath the awnings of public buildings or the lintels of front doors, people dashed out like bullets fired from a gun. Only Gyeong-hee remained where she was, alone but for Myeong-shik in her hushed apartment. She heard the broadcast along with everybody else, understood the emphasis implicit in the words “without exception,” but she knew she was exempt from her unit’s roll call – she had a sick child to take care of.
The manuscript of Bandi’s The Accusation, written by hand by pencil, on paper that has become faded – it was worked on so long – was smuggled out of North Korea and published pseudonymously earlier this year. Bandi writes under a pen-name because he still lives in North Korea. It represents one of the first works critical of the regime to be published by an author still subject to its control. And it is a fascinating, near deadpan, critique of that dictatorship.
Chronologically, the first story in the volume “Record of A Defection”, was written at the end of 1989. The latest story “Pandemonium” is dated December 1995. Bandi turned his eye, and his pencil, to the world around him over a long time and the result is fiction so brutal it could have been carved out of solid stone. Depicting the lives, struggles, journeys and loves of ordinary people, Bandi’s eye is fine tuned to the things that are not said, to the things that cannot be said and the things that are longed for.
From the personable, heartbreaking “Record of a Defection” to the Orwellian “City of Specters”, and the chilling “Pandemonium”, Bandi’s work paints a picture that is not unfamiliar in fiction, not unfamiliar at all. But in its context, the reader assumes he’s painting what he sees around him. Families trapped or separated, disappearances and forced relocations, hunger, pain and the need to smile through it all, regardless. In fact, that is exactly what Pandemonium, one of the stand outs of the collection to my mind, describes exactly. Laughing through the pain. It is all the more effective for the understated tone Bandi employs.
It just so happened that I was reading 1984 with one of my students while reading this collection. And it occurred to me that we have so often relegated stories like Bandi’s to fiction without considering the realities. Even Orwell considered the realities of the worlds he evoked more than casual readers of his work today. Bandi, it would seem, has offered us a correction and he did so at great risk to himself. We’d do well to talk about it, to pass it around, to make sure it is read widely.
The Accusation, Bandi: Four stars.
Imprint: Serpents Tail.
Date: April 2017.