In a culture dominated by post-modernist irony and cynicism, The Accusation is refreshing in that it unashamedly, unflinchingly demands to be read as a book about something.
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (March 2017)
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As strange as it may seem, one of my favorite representations of North Korea appears in Max Brooks’s World War Z (2006). I know, I know, you’re probably thinking, what about Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (2012)? Or, more accurately, how could I compare a Pulitzer Prize winning novel with a collection of stories about a zombie apocalypse? Despite the slightly silly (though entirely compelling within its context) subject matter, Brooks’s description of what would happen within the infamously reclusive country during a zombie outbreak gets to the heart of what makes North Korea so fascinating and terrifying for Western audiences.
In a sub-chapter entitled “The Demilitarized Zone: South Korea,” Brooks imagines that the entirety of the country, 23 million strong, would simply disappear into massive subterranean complexes, as a physical manifestation of the dear leader’s intellectual and political desire for control of the minds of bodies of the Korean people. Through his character, Brooks writes
The Great Leader always wanted to be a living God, and now, as master not only of the food his people eat, the air they breathe, but the very light of their artificial suns, maybe his twisted fantasy has finally become a reality…Maybe that was the original plan…Maybe those caverns are teeming with twenty three-million zombies, emaciated automatons howling in the darkness and just waiting to be unleashed.
The idea that North Korea’s official response to a cataclysmic event is to disappear, to coil up like a snake and draw even further inward in a last desperate bid for power, seems deeply insightful and prescient to me, especially as we consider the looming shadow of that country’s developing nuclear capability.
When Western readers try to comprehend the paradoxical nature of the DPRK, it seems almost impossible that such a locale could even exist. But, North Korea is the riddle of the twenty-first century sphinx. What becomes more secretive and elusive as it grows in notoriety? A fairy tale castle, or a modern totalitarian state that could not more accurately reflect Orwell’s 1984 if it directly tried?
All of these thoughts chased one another through my mind as I read the seven stories that make up The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, written by the pseudonymous author Bandi, a rebellious iconoclast who still resides within North Korea’s borders. The story of how the book made it out of the country through intrigue and secret agents and last minute camouflage between propaganda texts is straight out of a Hollywood spy film, which is appropriate, since every detail of these stories seems to defy the realm of the believable.
Bandi translates to “firefly” in Korean, and the name turns out to be appropriate beyond all compare–his stories flick and flitter like a lightning bug, illuminating the darkness and ignorance of the daily lives of North Koreans and showing readers the crushing weight under which its citizens live. At the same time, however, the collection is deeply practical, serving as a reminder that such a fate is not as impossible as Western audiences might like to believe.
And, it is within this vein that Bandi’s work shines most brightly. In a culture dominated by post-modernist irony and cynicism, The Accusation is refreshing in that it unashamedly, unflinchingly demands to be read as a book about something. It serves as a direct reminder of the emotional and practical value of social protest, a necessary and pertinent memento for the kinds of political work literature is capable of–one possibly much needed in our current American climate.
Bandi’s style is a kind of forthright storytelling one might expect from a folktale or family story passed down through generations, but this is not to say that it is simplistic or elementary. Rather, it means that he does not mince words about the practical realities of a Marxist regime, and he refuses to pull punches when it comes to representing North Korea’s treatment of its people. Sometimes, the power of these stories lies directly upon the surface, like oil upon water, in such stories as “Record of a Defection,” about a husband who believes his young wife is sleeping with a local party official. In other cases, Bandi uses symbolism to his advantage, crafting an entire political statement through the image of a bird cage in “So Near, Yet so Far,” or that of a poisonous fungus in “The Red Mushroom”. This beautiful and motivational symbolism counters the often inhuman and systematized language of Marxist thought (people are producers/consumers, families are systems etc.) and helps craft stories about people caught between the larger political and cultural machinations of an autocratic regime. These people are not brainwashed “zombies” of the daylight, who do only as they are commanded; rather, Bandi shows the loves, hopes, desires, and dreams of those who wished for a better world but were instead fed the ashes of a ruined state.
Bandi’s humanization of the North Korean people is, in fact, one key element that makes this collection so important. For the first time beyond lines of poetry or harrowing memoirs of those who have escaped the clutches of that oppressive dictatorship, Bandi gives an inside look at the lives of normal people under the power of the DPRK, and in the process, he brings the full power of the artist against the forces of totalitarianism in his home land.
Having heaped my praise upon Bandi, I should mention that my only significant criticism of the text lies with the publisher and the translation. I want to recognize the work that Grove has done in getting this book into English, however, I would be remiss if I failed to point out a number of minor foibles and mistakes in the translation itself. Typos, editing errors, and repeated words or phrases in the first edition make me wonder what else I might be losing in a translation that seems to have been rushed out the door before it was ready.
Despite this rather minor concern, I wholeheartedly recommend that anyone read this book because of its cultural significance as the first text critical of the North Korean regime to be successfully smuggled out of the country. It is rare that we as readers are given the opportunity to recognize and participate in moments of such cultural and historical import, and as a result, I encourage anyone with even a passing interest in the myriad forces that compose our complex and dynamic world to read this book or risk missing out on something grand and dramatic beyond all saying.