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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Accusation


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To purchase The Accusation

Title: The Accusation
Author: Bandi
Genre: Stories
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 247 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Accusation - US
The Accusation - UK
The Accusation - Canada
La dénonciation - France
Denunziation - Deutschland
  • Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea
  • Korean title: 고발
  • Translated by Deborah Smith
  • With an Afterword by Kim Seong-dong
  • With a Note from Don Hee-yun

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Our Assessment:

B : solid if a bit obviously done; interesting glimpses into North Korea

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 11/3/2017 RO Kwon
Le monde diplomatique . 8/2016 Martine Bulard
New Statesman A 15/3/2017 Megan Walsh
The Observer . 26/3/2017 Isabel Hilton
Publishers Weekly . 16/1/2017 .
TLS . 26/5/2017 Min Jin Lee
Wall St. Journal . 7/4/2017 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today . 1-2/2018 Krys Lee

  From the Reviews:
  • "The overall structures of Bandiís stories are almost identical -- perhaps too identical, one might think, except that the repetitiveness of their trajectories seems all too accurately to reflect the fates of real-life North Koreans. Bandiís prose style is rough, jagged with exclamation marks and anguished rhetorical questions: this, too, could be said to fit the exigencies of his book." - RO Kwon, The Guardian

  • "Bandi n’est pas Soljenitsyne, et son œuvre littéraire en est très loin. L’intérêt tient aux récits de la vie quotidienne qui montrent les failles du système, son hypocrisie, son absurdité, sa répression… et les stratégies de survie des Nord-Coréens." - Martine Bulard, Le monde diplomatique

  • "(A) collection of courageous and confounding short stories (.....) Each has at its heart an accusation, enabling the book to highlight masterfully the ways in which everyone (...) is debased by the fear of committing an unavoidable or unforeseeable crime. (...) Itís a quiet privilege to be given access to the voiceless by listening to such vivid and uncompromised storytelling." - Megan Walsh, New Statesman

  • "The stories are spare, direct, unflinching and bitterly angry. They detail the misery that the cruel absurdities of the regime inflicted on everyday lives in the closing years of Kim Il-sungís reign. (...) Bandiís characters struggle to live with love, humour and humanity while conforming to the demands of the regime, but are undone by the impossibility of the proposition, by the routine injustice, corruption and cruelties endemic in the system." - Isabel Hilton, The Observer

  • "Whatever little moral ambiguity the situation might offer is eclipsed by the clarity of Bandiís anger." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(A) collection of seven stories depicting the terrifying struggles of ordinary North Koreans -- translated elegantly by Deborah Smith" - Min Jin Lee, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In an unfussy translation by Deborah Smith, their power is in the plain-spoken, almost artless way they convey daily life under an ever-watchful, whimsically cruel regime." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Though the English translation is faithful to the original stories, the actual stories themselves, such as 'So Near, Yet So Far,' can be schematic in plot and general in characterization. Throughout the book, the prose is ordinary, and the adopted tone occasionally reminds one of news reports. The use of such devices as the diary form is clumsy at best. (...) The value of The Accusation as a work of art is debatable, but it remains valuable for its compelling insights into a little-known world." - Krys Lee, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Accusation collects seven stories written by an author still living in North Korea, with 'Bandi' a pseudonym used for the foreign publication of these stories to protect his actual identity. The stories were apparently written between 1989 and 1995 and smuggled out of the country (as Kim Seong-dong explains in the Afterword); they were first published in South Korea in 2014.
       In the Afterword, Kim Seong-dong describes Bandi as a member of the Chosun Writers' League Central Committee, meaning that he is a bona fide -- and likely relatively highly-respected -- author in the North Korean hierarchy; as Kim notes, for writers in North Korea: "affiliation with the Chosun Literature and Art General League is obligatory" (and a place in the Central Committee obviously a mark of high local status). The stories in The Accusation, however, are presumably entirely unlike whatever the author publishes in his homeland; these system-critical stories are unthinkable in the lockstep regime, where contrarian voices exist, at best, very privately and fiction that suggests the system might be flawed and life in it not, essentially, idyllic could never be published. These stories by Bandi presumably show realities of North Korean life -- ironically: surely ones his readers there are all too familiar with anyway --, as opposed to the local propaganda-lit that has to put a rosy shine on even the worst of circumstances.
       In 'So Near, Yet So Far' the plot revolves around something as simple as a son trying to see his dying mother. Summoned by yet a third telegram -- "Mother critically ill" -- he wants to do his filial duty -- but can't get the necessary Travel Regulation permit. It's not that the authorities are necessarily completely heartless -- the suggestion is that normally this probably wouldn't be too much of a problem -- but other considerations eclipse any personal ones:

We've had an order from above forbidding travel to this district. They're gearing up to hold a Class One event -- you know what that means, don't you. That's right, the Great Leader himself.
       Traditional Korean attitudes of honoring elders add to the impact of the story, especially for Korean readers, and Bandi adds to it by laying it on thick with some descriptions of the mother's sacrifices and maternal love under terrible conditions.
       Myeong-chol wants to sob about these ridiculous circumstances -- but holds back ("he knew that even crying could be construed as an act of rebellion, for which, in this country, there was only one outcome -- a swift and ruthless death") -- and can only moan to himself:
How could his own village, in his own country, his own land, be so remote, so utterly unreachable ?
       Again: Bandi's critique here reads much stronger in the Korean context, where village-ties and a closely rooted-to-the-land nationalism make this much more outrageous at a personal/fundamental level than, say, the US equivalent of being put on a 'No Fly'-list. Here, as throughout, an overwhelming state crushes any and all individual concerns.
       The opening story is titled -- and amounts to a -- 'Record of a Defection', the characters broken, despite their best efforts, by the country and the system:
We would escape from this land of deceit and falsehood, where even loyalty and diligence are not enough for life to flourish, choked as it is by tyranny and humiliation.
       What drives them to it is summed up in the story, a tale of a couple trying to do their best but hindered by, among other things, the husband being tarred for the (supposed) sins of the fathers -- like many Communist and other totalitarian regimes, the North Korean one is also one of firm belief in Sippenhaftung --, with the wife driven to terrible compromises by those wielding some power in the hopes of bettering her family's life.
       Conformity rules -- one family is admonished for putting up a different kind of curtain that spoils the uniform look from the streets -- and a common element in many of the stories is the effort not to stand out in any way. In one, that goes completely wrong: 'Pandemonium' finds a grandmother torn by family obligations -- and winding up feeling overwhelmingly guilty about failing her grand-daughter and husband (both of whom wind up getting injured in a local incident) -- while she, in her efforts to make her way behind the scenes as best as possible, winds up in the brightest spotlight, picked up roadside by the last person in North Korea a commoner probably wants to get in the way of. (Interestingly, he turns out to be a nice guy, at least in this situation -- while the story is also interestingly presented, Mrs. Oh more concerned with the hurt inflicted on her family (for which she feels guilty) rather than her amazing encounter.)
       These stories are from the time of Kim Il-sung's rule, the original big daddy -- father of the nation, 'Great Leader', 'Father of Us All', with the latest one, 'On Stage', written a year after his 1994 death -- and dealing specifically with the (continuing) mourning period for him. The main character is a member of the secret services, the Bowibu, who is warned about his son being seen not being properly respectful in this grave time -- when even cracking a smile presumably is taken as an affront to the memory of the dead guy, much less making out with some young woman (from a politically dubious family, no less).
       Confessing an earlier incident of inappropriate behavior, the son describes how the director of the political department at the border post he was stationed at was disappointed by a performance rehearsal by him his fellow soldiers: the director wanted "stage truth" from them:
You might not be familiar with the term, but you should at least understand the concept, how actors perform a given play as though it were real life. To lie, in other words, but convincingly, so the audience will believe it is the truth.
       The not so subtle point -- especially now, in this time of extended mourning, with endless shows of sadness obligatory -- is that life in North Korea itself is all 'stage truth', everyone pretending one thing even in the face of an obviously different reality. But success -- and survival -- depend on faking it convincingly. Yet even the dedicated Bowibu officer, as he sheds tears yet again, sees the lines blurring .....
       As his son tells him:
A sincere, genuine life is possible only for those who have freedom. Where emotions are suppressed and actions monitored, acting only becomes ubiquitous, and so convincing that we even trick ourselves.
       The stories tend to be crisis-focused, wherby the crises are of the sort that should be relatively minor but are horribly magnified by local circumstances and conditions, panic easily escalating over what should be minor things that easily get over-blown in a regime that permits no deviations. In 'City of Specters' it is almost comic, as a mother desperately tries to keep her very young daughter from being confronted by the ubiquitous oversize portraits of Marx and Kim Il-sung -- images that terrify the child, as it associates them with a monster, and set it bawling, a very improper reaction the mother knows she must prevent.
       Of course, there are also quite a few examples of those with positions in the Party getting and taking advantage, an unfairness found in any society where power comes with so much power and so little to keep it in check. The stories also do afford some interesting glimpses into basic North Korean life and how the cowed population tries to make do, though there's not enough devoted to this to get a good sense of many forms of day-to-day life.
       Bandi does also tend to the obvious, especially in his stories' resolutions, as he hammers home his message one last time (admittedly, a common story-writer bad habit). Still, these are quite well-crafted stories, with -- or, especially, because of -- the unusualness of the all too real situations presented in them.
       Inside views of what is widely seen as the isolated -- and fairly well-shielded from prying eyes -- tragic/bizarro world of North Korea under the Kims -- Il-Sung, Jong-Il, Jong-un -- are of course of interest and welcome. Still, much of the basic information, about how hellish and regimented life is, and how deep government control goes, is familiar, from the accounts of defectors and others. The Accusation is a haunting, disturbing collection that offers some immediacy -- yet also at a distance, with the freshest of these stories still set just after Kim Il-sung's death, more than two decades ago. Change has, presumably, been limited under his successors, and it's worth remembering that much described here is probably on-going, yet the collection also feels like a continuation of a genre that dried up with the fall of the Soviet Union, totalitarian oppositional literature, with a touch of the exotic (so, say, Albania or one of the -stan Soviet Republics, rather than the better-off Eastern European states) -- still worthwhile, but different only in some very local specifics.
       Given at least general familiarity with the situation and conditions -- as is the case even in this so closed-off case -- what might be more intriguing would be to see what the state-approved literature looks like -- the writing that 'Bandi' is able to publish in North Korea under his real name. That picture of North Korea is unlikely to be an honest one yet might, in its obvious dishonesty, be more revealing. Certainly, it is a missing literary link that foreign readers surely should also be exposed to, the kind of North Korean literature that should also be published abroad.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 February 2017

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The Accusation: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       'Bandi' (반디) is the pseudonym of a North Korean author, born in 1950.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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