This week, a short story collection written by an author in North Korea and smuggled across its borders is reaching readers in North America. The Accusation is the first known story collection written by an author still living inside the totalitarian state to have escaped its iron curtain, and it is now being published across the globe. The author, who goes by the pseudonym Bandi, worked on the manuscript in secret and hid it in his home for years, until a family member told him of her plan to escape the country and Bandi asked her to take the manuscript with her. One of its stories, “City of Specters” (translated by Deborah Smith), is available to read at Lit Hub and reveals the oppressive atmosphere of terror that rules the daily lives of North Koreans. In it, a mother tries desperately to hide her young son’s fear of a giant poster of Karl Marx that hangs outside their apartment, afraid that the toddler’s fright will bring suspicion upon their family and cause dire consequences.
It was getting on toward evening the previous Saturday when it had first happened. A citizens’ rally was taking place in Kim Il-sung Square, with the aim of encouraging people to be ever more energetic in preparing for the celebrations… Myeong-shik had had a cold, and as Gyeong-hee, reluctant to leave him in that state, couldn’t very well absent herself from the rally, in the end she’d strapped him to her back and gone into the square…
Her group had been at the head of the square’s far-left column, directly beneath the glowering gaze of Karl Marx. In the haze of dusk, before the square’s electric lighting was switched on, that reddish-black face with its great swath of hair would have sent shivers down the spine of even the most stolid Party cadre. Perhaps it was that which accounted for Gyeong-hee’s unwonted recollection—a line from the first passage of The Communist Manifesto, which she’d read at some point during college.
“A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism.”
Bandi’s prose balances an omnipresent sense of dread with a sharp eye for the absurd, evident in Gyeong-hee’s inability to stay home from a rally to care for a feverish child and again later on in the passage when Myeong-shik starts to cry, frightened by the Marx poster, and then begins convulsing in his mother’s arms and foaming at the mouth. It is here that Bandi delivers one of the most terrifying lines in the story: “Had a doctor happened to be at hand, the incident might well have ended in disaster.”
This line demands to be read twice, its meaning too contrary to Western ears. Her child is having a seizure, and instead of wanting a doctor—crying out for one, calling an ambulance—Gyeong-hee is relieved that one is not present. She hides her son’s convulsions, afraid of disrupting the rally and terrified that his fits, triggered by the revered Karl Marx, will be interpreted as a failing of her parenting, or even worse, as evidence of anti-revolutionary thinking in her household.
The massive poster looms over the square and is also visible from Gyeong-hee’s apartment windows, along with an equally huge poster of Kim Il-sung, and the daunting gazes of both men literally peer into her home, a reminder of the all-reaching power and constant surveillance of the state. Her son confuses the intimidating portrait with Eobi, a character from folklore, “the fearsome creature who stuffs disobedient children into his sack and tosses them down a well,” and with this move, Bandi transforms the father of communism, and by extension the Great Leader of North Korea, into the boogieman. Later, as Gyeong-hee watches the square in front of her apartment fill up with comrades for the National Day celebrations, her heart shudders in her chest:
“Shudder”! Yes, that was the exact word for it. What had just taken place in front of Gyeong-hee’s eyes was a spectacle inducing the awe of terror rather than the wonder felt in witnessing a miracle. Not even the threat of immediate death could have induced such unconditional obedience. What terrifying force had caused this city to give birth to such an incomprehensible upheaval?
The Accusation was originally published in South Korea in 2014 and continues to spread across the globe, offering a rare perspective of life under one of the world’s most oppressive dictatorships. As bleak and disturbing as many of the stories are, the existence of the collection itself offers hope for the continued survival of dissent through art in even the harshest of circumstances. Bandi’s literary agent Barbara Zitwer put it well: “As much and as hard as the brutal leader of North Korean tries to robotize the population, he cannot. Free thought, free ideas, artistic efforts and most of all a great sense of free imagination cannot be destroyed or eliminated.”