The Accusation

“Some days it seems life is just a never-ending obstacle course,” we are told in the title story of Bandi’s The Accusation (translated by Deborah Smith), a sentiment that we might all share at times, but here in reference to a society little known outside its own borders, that of North Korea. In the story, a husband becomes suspicious at his wife’s behaviour, particularly when he discovers a hidden packet of contraceptive pills. Only when he has the opportunity to read her diary is the truth revealed in an insight into a country where party rank is everything, and any disloyalty casts a shadow down the generations. The wife’s disquiet begins when she discovers that her nephew, Min-hyuk, cannot be made class president because of his family history:

“His grades were already at the top, and his comportment was first class. But when I went to get the proposal ratified by the Party secretary, I got, ‘Comrade, don’t you know that this child’s father was deported to Wonsan?’ and, well, that was that.”

As the narrator puts it:

“A blameless child with his whole life already mapped out, forced to follow in his parent’s footsteps, step by stumbling step, along that same route of blood and tears.”

Again and again in these stories, humanity, in all its warmth and weakness, comes into conflict with impersonal ideology. In ‘City of Spectres’ a family must contend with their young child’s fear of Karl Marx’s face, ubiquitous thanks to upcoming celebrations:

“He was the son of a supervisor in the propaganda department, and having a tantrum at the sight of Marx’s portrait had serious implications. And besides, now that the preparations for National Day were coming to a head, people were at such a level of excitement they’d be liable to mistake a dropped spoon for a grenade.”

Unfortunately the curtains which prevent Myeong-shik from seeing the portraits out of the apartment window are not in keeping with the demands of uniformity (and white net, and therefore transparent, curtains):

“Every other house has those same curtains, so the street can look neat and uniform. Which it would, if your apartment wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb.”

Not only is this a wonderful image of the conformity required to fit in, but the story makes clear the consequences of not complying – in this case, relocation to the countryside. In ‘So Near, Yet So Far’ the love for a parent rather than a child is the stumbling block as Myeong-chol asks for permission to visit his dying mother in the countryside:

“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 Dear Leader himself.”

Myeong-chol decides to go anyway, a nerve-wracking journey which we know ends in punishment from the story’s opening which shows him returning home:

“He’d always been skinny and slightly stooped, but he looked to have aged twenty years in as many days.”

The story is not the only one to use obvious but effective symbolism: when Myeong-chol releases some larks from a cage they simply return to the cage the next morning. Symbolism also plays a part in my favourite story, ‘Life of a Swift Steed’, which concerns the much-decorated Seol Yong-su. A model citizen, he unexpectedly goes “berserk” when soldiers attempt to cut a branch from the elm tree in his yard. The tree, it transpires, is important to him as he was told when a boy (he is now an old man), “When it grows to be as tall as that chimney over there” he will have:

“…pure white rice with meat every day, and silk clothes, and a house with a tiled roof.”

The tree represents the promises of Communism, and Yong-su’s faith in it his faith in the regime. I could not help but be reminded of Boxer with his refusal to lose heart, his self-sacrifice and his medals. Yet, as his wife says,

“What good is a medal to us? Will a medal keep us warm? Will a medal fill our stomachs?”

Readers of Soviet fiction will recognise much that is to be found in these stories, though obviously with shifts of emphasis and a different cultural background. What is most striking, however, is not how different the way of life is, but how similar the people are.

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9 Responses to “The Accusation”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    I read the first story in this collection and found the details about life in North Korea interesting. The food rations, for instance, are something we never think about in the west. I will have to finish the rest of the book!

    • 1streading Says:

      What surprised me most was the focus on ceremony and the emphasis on such events being perfect. Look forward to hearing what you think when you’ve finished reading it.

      • Scott W Says:

        Ceremony, as I understand it, is primary in the country. A friend who worked in North Korea for a NGO described her initial arrival at Pyongyang’s airport and her emotion and gratitude at being given a bouquet of flowers when she stepped off the plane. She was then driven through the city for a quick tour, the first stop of which was King Il Sung’s tomb. As everyone got out of the car, her hosts politely gestured to her, indicating that she should place the flowers in front of the tomb.

        Have you read Adam Johnson’s North Korea novel The Orphan Master’s Son?

      • 1streading Says:

        The importance of ceremony certainly comes over very strongly in these stories. I haven’t read The Orphan Master’s Son – I’ll check that out.

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    I read this too, a month or so ago. It’s sobering reading…

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Sounds like an eye-opening read. There are times when fiction can give us different insights into certain issues and cultures, perhaps in ways that non-fiction or news reports can’t. I wonder if that’s the case here…

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Great cover and Deborah Smith is a translation force to be reckoned with, but it does sound a tiny bit grim. Did the author flee the country? I can’t somehow imagine these tales being approved by the regime.

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