As readers of this blog will know, I’m a huge fan of translated literature, especially when it gives me an insight into a new country or culture. It’s always exciting when I’m able to read my first book from a new place; highlights so far have included Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches from Rwanda, Paulina Chiziane’s ‘The First Wife‘ from Mozambique and the Haitian ‘Dance on the Volcano‘ by Marie Vieux-Chauvet. Reliant on translation as I am, I feel extremely privileged at having access to such books.
I never would have imagined being able to add a dissident North Korean voice to my round-the-world reading. North Korea is, after all, a famously secretive country, closely controlling both what happens within its borders and also what can be made public to the enemies outside. Kim Seong-dong’s Afterword to ‘The Accusation’ includes details of how the manuscript was smuggled out of North Korea and some information about Bandi (not the author’s real name). It is a harsh reminder of the freedoms we in the West are lucky enough to take for granted. When Kim Soeng-dong describes the manuscript in telling detail ‘the indentations made by the pressure of the writer’s pencil are plainly visible, while the faded paper indicates the long gestation of the work‘ before reminding us that ‘these were works that could not be written without risking one’s life,‘ the indictments and bravery of these stories become even more forceful.
Bandi’s characters are ordinary men and women trying to live ordinary lives. Their ambitions range from wishing to succeed at work, wishing to visit family members, wishing to join the Communist party to wishing relations would succeed better at fitting in with society’s expectations. Because the setting is North Korea though, such aspirations are thwarted swiftly and crushingly. The woman who draws her curtains at the wrong time of day, the man who wishes to travel to see his dying mother – motivation, intention, final results are all irrelevant when they come up against the relentless repressive regime.
The stories themselves are vehicles for the passionate accusation against an unjust government. Each follows a similar structure of conformity to the unspoken rules followed by a realisation of their inhumanity. The symbolism is equally direct, as pet birds are caged, beloved trees are cut down and poisonous mushrooms appear red on the ground. The book has been translated by Deborah Smith, who (with Han Kang) won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for ‘The Vegetarian.’ Smith also translated Kang’s brutal ‘Human Acts‘; here she shows her versatility with the, very different, direct tone of ‘The Accusation.’
The risks taken to write, save and finally bring these stories to publication have been immense. I feel the only response from those of us fortunate enough to be able to work, travel and write freely, must be to read and discuss them. It is a reminder of the important work done by organisations such as PEN (who selected this book for one of their awards, designed to encourage UK publishers to acquire more books from other languages). There is no way of knowing what is happening to Bandi since the publication of this collection. His identity has been scrupulously protected by the few South Koreans who can connect him to the book, but the stories themselves show the power and reach of the North Korean authorities. Through his writing however, Bandi has succeeded in standing witness to his society, and I hope that his stories will spread his ideas to readers from worlds so cruelly barred to him.
I received my copy of ‘The Accusation’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.