As tensions dramatically escalate over North Korea’s expansion of its nuclear weapon program, a startling collection of short stories revealing the brutal reality of life inside the isolated regime breaks free.
The Accusation, published under the pseudonym Bandi, which means “firefly” in Korean, is the first fiction to be smuggled out of North Korea from an author still living and working there.
A remarkable feat of dissident literature, it paints an appalling picture of life north of the 38th parallel and denounces the cruelty of the pariah state at great personal risk to the author and his family.
Hence, the veil of secrecy that protects his true identity.
A member of the regime’s propaganda machine, the Chosun Writers’ League Central Committee, which publishes state-approved literature, Bandi explains his chosen pseudonym in a poem, which is not collected here, lamenting that he is, “fated to shine only in a world of darkness”.
Translated by Deborah Smith, who shared the 2016 Man Booker International Prize with South Korean author Hang Kang for her work on the disturbingly riveting novella, The Vegetarian, the seven short stories and one poem presented in The Accusation are based on harrowing true events, which only heightens their import and impact.
Citizens slave away over arduous land only to be imprisoned when their crops fail, starvation is rife and a baby’s cry can reduce a mother to despair, fearing that she will be labelled as an enemy of the state.
People die in muddy landslides collecting ever more flowers to leave in memoriam of previous Supreme Leader Kim Il‑sung.
“Now that every flower bed in this city has been stripped bare, now that we have risked poisonous snakes and landslides to bring further tribute from the field sand mountains, can we say that our Great Leader has been suitably mourned? Absolutely not!”
Thankfully, she did not carry the manuscript itself, because she was captured by Chinese soldiers and was to be returned to face death or imprisonment.
She was rescued when a sympathiser managed to alert human rights activist Do Hee-yun, who arranged for her safe passage to South Korea.
On learning about the existence of the manuscript, it was Do Hee-yun who made secret plans for it to be smuggled out of North Korea.
A clarion call for justice, The Accusation is an unforgettable testament to indomitable human spirit, written with an unbending commitment to the truth, at times difficult to bear, but also spiked with a sharp satirical spear.
Hannah Westland, at The Accusation’s publisher, Serpent’s Tail, said there was more to the book than just its incredible escape act out of the country.
“It’s a collection of perfectly crafted novellas that, like [Russian author Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn’s work, speak with the dissident’s authority and truth-to-power directness.”
And that honesty of purpose is painful, but immeasurably vital for that very reason.
The Accusation by Bandi, translated by Deborah Smith, is published by Serpent’s Tail on March 29.