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FICTION: TYRANNICAL TALES FROM NORTH KOREA

November 19, 2017

Mohsin Hamid once said that making up stories is an inherently political act. One of literature’s critical roles is to instigate change but, sometimes, the most powerful form of literature is that which depicts the status quo by not challenging or commenting in any way, thereby validating reality. The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea does just that.

This book, which had to be smuggled out of North Korea, has a fascinating origin story. It is authored by an established writer using the pseudonym ‘Bandi’, meaning firefly, and last we knew he was still living in North Korea and was a member of the nation’s official writers’ association. He could be prosecuted in his country if his identity were revealed, so no other information is disclosed for his own safety. When a close relative revealed plans to leave North Korea, Bandi asked her to take the manuscript with her by hiding it among reams of propaganda glorifying Kim II-Sung.

For someone belonging to a country where the slightest gesture of political dissent could get you killed, getting the manuscript published was a heroic feat. It was originally published in South Korea and later translated by Deborah Smith, who also translated Han Kang’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Vegetarian, into English.

Chilling and heartbreaking stories from a totalitarian regime that holds its nation in slavish subjection

The Accusation gives a first-hand experience of how rigidly the North Korean government controls its citizens, fostering and maintaining a culture of subservience. Ideas of autocratic state control and increased surveillance have been explored in modern classics such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but the psychological and emotional toll of existent fascism, gleaned from these stories, is eye-opening. In fiction about totalitarian states there’s always that small consolation that it is not real; here, the legitimacy of despotism adds a certain poignancy and weight.

Speaking volumes about the politics of the tyranny and oppression, most of the stories are written as letters by protagonists who have survived great ordeals. In ‘Record of a Defection’, a family is labeled as traitors because their ancestor did not adhere to the newly introduced cooperative farming method. He is branded as an anti-Party, anti-revolutionary element and becomes a cross to bear for entire generations. The story ends with the family trying to escape in a canoe knowing full well the perils that await them, “because we feel that to slide into oblivion would genuinely be better than continuing to live as we have been, persecuted and tormented.”

‘The City of Spectres’ is about a couple whose child cries every time he sees the giant portrait of Karl Marx and Kim II-Sung opposite their apartment window, compelling his mother, Gyeong-hee, to draw the curtains. In a country paranoid about the tiniest hint of defiance, this is seen as extremely suspicious and propels the local Party secretary to warn the family with a negative ‘review’ that is intended to cull anyone deviating from Party ideology. This story gives a rapier-sharp insight into the collective psyche of North Korean society. It begins on the National Day ceremony which the government likes to mark with much pomp and pageantry. However, this time the festivities are marred by torrential downpours. Nevertheless, the national radio (North Korea is tuned to government stations only) demands all citizens to converge as always on Kim II-Sung Square, come rain or shine.

Like everyone else Gyeong-hee and her child venture out into the flooded streets and she is shocked to see the square fill up with thousands of soaking wet citizens in 15 minutes, filing into neat rows as the prescribed time approaches. The government insists that this “miracle” of obedience should inspire awe, but in Gyeong-hee it only ignites terror. She wonders, “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?” What a horrifying depiction of a culture of mass dictatorship and conditioned subservience.

All the stories have that moment of almost claustrophobic and staggering epiphany when the protagonist realises how they have been duped and the depravity of the country they live in. Their reaction is mostly to surrender, break down or run away.

In ‘Life of a Swift Steed’, decorated war veteran Seol Young-su refuses to let the military police cut a branch off the elm tree that he had planted after the Korean Peninsula was liberated, as an emblem of their country’s prosperous future. The narrator, his nephew, was told by his uncle that when the tree grows taller they will have pure white rice everyday and a house with a tiled roof. Since then he has worked tirelessly, persevering in the hope of a better future. Like Boxer from Animal Farm, he is a foolishly loyal worker, devoted to the establishment and happy with pointless medals

as rewards for his commitment to the cause. “For Seol Yong-su, the elm was a banner bearing the slogans of struggle, a placard encouraging him to keep up hope, reminding him of the blissful future which lay in wait.”

In ‘So Near, Yet So Far’, a man is refused permission to go to his village to visit his dying mother. He can’t even vent his frustration as “crying could be construed as an act of rebellion, for which, in this country, there was only one outcome — a swift and ruthless death.” One day, coming home from work, he sees that a skylark he had set free has returned to its cage. He wonders at his similarity to the bird, unable to break free of his shackles, akin to “a dragonfly stuck in a spider web.” In another story, a single parent works so hard on a farm that he goes without seeing his motherless children for long stretches of time, but when his crop fails, he is charged with anti-revolutionary crimes. The story is chilling in its portrayal of a country that demands its people to be loyal, but not human.

Although the stories feature people of many social classes and from all walks of life, the overarching themes are of survival in a totalitarian stronghold where decades of state ownership have rendered its citizens impuissant. In most stories either the protagonist is wrongly accused of crimes against the state or forced to make harrowing choices for deviating even an inch from the arbitrary law of the land.

My favourite was ‘Pandemonium’, a piercing tale about using media as a propaganda tool. An elderly couple and their young granddaughter get stuck in a nightmarish rabble at a train station. In the ensuing stampede Mr Oh’s limbs are fractured and his granddaughter’s leg is broken. Mrs Oh, meanwhile, unwittingly finds herself face to face with Kim II-Sung’s convoy who, in his apparent benevolence, agrees to drive her to the hospital — if she sings praises of their Great Leader in front of the press.

The story ends with Mrs Oh telling her granddaughter a fairytale about a demon who ruled over thousands of slaves in a garden protected by high fences and used magic to turn their sobs into laughter.

All the stories have that moment of almost claustrophobic and staggering epiphany when the protagonist realises how they have been duped and the depravity of the country they live in. Their reaction is mostly to surrender, break down or run away (or at least, attempt to). The stories lack range but the elliptical plots with similar trajectories serve to remind us of the regimented lives of North Korean citizens.

In the current political climate, with escalating tensions between North Korea and the United States on one hand and Donald Trump’s jingoistic policy-making on the other, The Accusation is a timely cautionary tale, ending with this disquieting poem: “Fifty years in this northern land/ Living as a machine that speaks/ Living as a human under a yoke.”

The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance book critic

The Accusation:
Forbidden Stories From
Inside North Korea,
Translated By
Deborah Smith
Serpent’s Tail, UK
ISBN: 978-1781257548
256pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 19th, 2017