As the Anglo-speaking world dances with authoritarianism, it feels apropos, if not a bit foreboding, that Bandi’s collection of short stories, The Accusation, should have its English debut. “Bandi” is the pseudonym of a North Korean author and member of Chosun Central League Writers’ Committee. His committee takes its cues from the Worker’s Party Department of Propaganda and Agitation, a highly significant state organ.
But The Accusation, which consists of seven short stories, is propaganda of a different nature; one highly critical of the North Korean regime, and particularly that of its first leader Kim Il-sung’s final years, marked by the deprivation and misery caused by the Soviet Union’s collapse. In Bandi’s stories hunger, for example, is everywhere, as evident as is the watchful eye of the State. The Accusation is a stark and often despair-inducing collection, but one we should read with great urgency at this moment, both as a document of what is and what could be and as a way to continue gaining better understanding of the complexities of North Korean society, which remains elusive to the West.
The Accusation’s arrival in South Korea and now in English is cause for celebration. Bandi’s is not the first piece of literature written by a North Korean dissident. Several successful memoirs and collections of poetry have emerged from DPRK defectors in the South, and no doubt these works had their seeds in the North. However, as far as can be told, Bandi’s stories represent the first written by someone who remains in the country, presumably still writing both for the State and for himself (for all we know Bandi is a woman, as it is unclear which parts of his biography are fabricated to protect his identity). How they were smuggled out of the North—a story unto itself, full of the kind of fortune that confirms the truth really is stranger than fiction—is included as an afterward.
The stories are most valuable as representations of the inner struggles of ordinary North Koreans. They are varied, and translator Deborah Smith renders them in an almost cheerful, matter-of-fact tone; characters are given wit and bitter humor. Their lives are at once relatable and comprised of experiences that, for the moment, remain a great distance from the lived experiences of many people who will pick up this book.
At their core they elucidate the logic required of people who are constantly monitored, not just by the State, directly, but by their fellow citizens A passage from the first story, “A Story of a Defection” exhibits the pervasive scrutiny:
I answered unthinkingly, too busy wondering how she could possibly have seen us. Thinking back now, she must have heard the gossip from the woman at No. 4, come to me to verify it, then reported it to the residents’ police. All of which could mean only one thing: Our apartment was under daily observation.
The portion of the North Korean population formally or informally connected to the surveillance apparatus is unparalleled. There is no such thing as idle gossip, and Bandi’s characters are well aware.
One’s connection, however tenuous, to a subversive or reactionary element can be devastating within the social caste system of the DPRK. In the case of Ko Inshik in the final story, “The Red Mushroom”, his brother-in-law was discovered to not have been killed during the Korean War, but ended up in the South, where Inshik’s reputation "became tarred with the brush of those who ‘falsified their history,’ and was sent down from Pyongyang in order to ‘have the proper revolutionary ideals instilled in him’ in N Town.”
In “Record of a Defection” the narrator’s family has been relegated to what is known as the wavering class “because my father was a murderer—albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings."
The parents in “The Stage”, the collection's most artful and viscerally affecting story, become agents of the State against their son, Kyeong-hun. Already viewed as a subversive element, “more canny than he’s letting on”, Kyeong-hun is observed holding a woman’s hand and drinking alcohol during the period of mourning for the Dear Leader. But the sins of the son are the whole family's and it is Kyeong-hun’s father who is forced to debase himself before his Bowibu Director and sell out his son with crocodile tears.
"Of course it’s political. Such behavior would be disgraceful at any time, but now! Now, when the inestimable loss of our Great Leader…" As though on cue, tears ran down Yeong-pyo’s cheeks, sallow and sunken due to a long-standing liver complaint. Even Yeong-pyo himself found it difficult to comprehend. How could the small cup of sadness sitting inside him produce a whole pitcher’s worth of tears?
Where the collection falters, if only a bit, is its overreliance on a single narrative structure. Bandi works heavily from flashback to tell his stories. The flashback typically takes up the middle third of each story, often outlining the dedication and perseverance of a Party worker who ends up disillusioned and disgusted, often battling feelings of impotence.
This may be just the style he is comfortable with (no one faults a hip hop artist for never writing a metal song), or perhaps it is a form common or popular in North Korean fiction, there is no way to tell. Fortunately, this rigid structure often breaks out into evocative, lyric passages, such as this quiet moment between old family friends:
...the smoke from Yeong-il’s cigarette quietly unspooled into the freezing air, and a space gradually formed between the two men...
or this description of the weather:
When the wind pauses to gather its breath, its absence amplified the sound of the rain, which poured down the roof in a plaintive whoosh.
The Accusation represents a milestone for those living outside the DPRK, but also in a sense for those living within its borders. To our great detriment, we in the West reduce and caricature North Korea, wanting to believe it simply a country of brainwashed peons serving a Confucian Big Brother. But, even if the narratives tend to be simple, Bandi refuses simplicity for his characters. Instead he gifts them forceful and vivid voices. The characters are stuck inside a terrible bind and it imbues their daily lives with a complexity and self-awareness that is as heartbreaking as it must be psychologically torturous, a bind I hope sincerely we ourselves can avoid in the years to come.
Послевоенные руины (Обескровельные,
Обугленные стены.) не подобны
Скелетам, обнаженным хищниками —
Искрошенные мозговые кости.
И разве что одни и те же птицы
Слетаются к останкам
Осмеркнуться в лесу, где хруст и треск,
Шуршание и скрип, и шелест
Домысливаются до хрипа, стонов, шепота и вздохов,
Где всякий жалкий куст прикидывается
Черт знает кем, а полусгнивший пень – опасной пастью.
Не застят ли столь нарочитые навязчивые страхи
Иных напастей: жгучих, колких, ядовитых,
Да мало ли каких еще?
На смерть Жана Виго
День был тих до остервенения.
Лишь псиный рык бежал за окном,
слегка покачиваясь, едва прикасаясь
к мехам эха. Человек —
это нечто внутреннее (потому
не способное привыкнуть к бытию).
Подняться на ноги с постели, взять книгу,
открыть послушную дверь —
не более чем пустяк,
но эти движения таинственны,
когда вдохновлены предчувствием смерти
или, быть может, чем-нибудь иным....
Дул воздух под утренней скорлупой
в привычном желтке бесстрастного города —
где измождённое одеяло берегло его хмурое тело.
Впрочем, это не важно....
Пружинист полдень — он лиловой кожей
в изгибе открывает путь цветения,
и тяжелей гнездо, и смерть
не опускается на дно искрящегося меда.
Земля в испарине, что сохнет, втекая в древесину, —
так череда часов крепчает
и ту неловкость исключает,
что держит дрожью стебель перед ветром.
Весь водоем спокоен — он вбирает
до глубины своей сиянье мака.
Любовь поспешна, и уста
чреваты солью и молчаньем.
Песня пересмешника таит вкус чёрной черешни,
особенно здесь, во дворе
отца и матери, где вопрос и ответ
впервые слышны вместе, –
свежесть на исходе столетия исчезающего захолустья, когда
последний этап любого микрокосма похож на долгую рань.
Краткий конец юга,
что сейчас окаймит встречную топь...
греко-бактрийское платье, айван и холм,
смутный незнакомец с профилем сакской сабли.
Пыль в прежних лучах пара́ми осела между хинно-серых лопаток
этого гостя, уснувшего в одной из комнат родительского дома,
будто лишь прохлада печётся о неизвестных голосах.
Нормальное время в чадородных кварталах,
тёмный удод на твоей плёнке,
но солнечная обстановка наплывает на скрещённые блёстки
в глиняном светильнике, засохшем в тени, –
другой покой других взрослых.
В корневых волокнах ворочаются жёлтые жуки,
как ожившие плевки прокажённых, – он
недвижен, не становясь меньше,
и близкое безличье общего роста ещё теплится в нём.
БИЗНЕСМЕН ИЗ МОНГОЛИИ. ИРКУТСК
Как ворон на голой ветке, на крыше высотки сидит одиноко,
Вконец обанкротившийся, с высоты 13-го этажа, свесил ноги,
Включили уже свои камеры ангелы смерти — фотографы и ТВ-журналисты,
В консульство, на том берегу священного моря, уже позвонили.
Энх Этреч, дорогой, что ты забыл в краю голодных духов сибирских,
Эх, да чтобы верхом на лошадке скакать, да по степям по альпийским,
Даже успеваешь сказать — что люб тебе этот град, эта страна лесная,
Даришь в качестве сувенира из Улан-Батора свой труп спасателю из МЧС...
Да и что этот глупый спасатель смог бы, он что ли спаситель Будда,
Да и разве вернул бы он бабки, проигранные вчера в рулетку,
Вечен смертный огонь желаний — так говорил Сидящий на Лотосе,
Нечем было долг погасить, китайским драконом испепеливший душу...
Энх Этреч, дорогой, зачем ты играл, как дитя с волчком, с колесом Сансары,
Смех отар, гул табунов, песни степей кинул за россыпь фишек и звезд?
Глух и нем потомок людей сокровенных сказаний и длинной воли,
А́хам и óхам чужий, все скачет к родным пепелищам на пегой в яблоках...
Гроб, ай да гроб смастерил брат твой Эрик, плотник великий,
Гром тамтамов, музыку сфер, вопль черноокой вдовы
Заслонила огромная рыбина с серебряной чешуей,
Заполонила хижину бедного рыбака.
Да, ослепительную мечту твою
Дарят тебе родственники и друзья на прощанье, Эдди,
Укладывают в нее тебя, как в люльку,
Баюкают в последний путь песнями и плясками.
Проснись! — поет вдова. — Вставай, лентяй!
Просят твои детки голодные рыбы кусочек!
Ну же, иди и поймай нам немного еды!
Нужен ты нам, черный верзила!
Только не слышат его черные уши нежные речи,
Толстые губы не вытянутся до этих ушей от улыбки,
Рыбу-гроб несут пьяные друзья его и понарошку дерутся,
Ибо любил Эдди выпить и, конечно, подраться.
Оп! и рыба слегка накренилась и двинулась вспять,
Окрики сзади: “Вертаемся, Эдди что-то дома забыл — духи велят!”
Так двигается траурная процессия то вперед, то назад,
То распевая черные псалмы, то приплясывая...
Per J. Andersson’s The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love is not only a love story, as its title suggests—it is also a biography and a travelogue. Andersson is a Swedish journalist who has traveled in and written extensively about India. In his latest book, he explores the true story of Pradyumna Kumar, or PK, a Dalit artist who grew up “untouchable” in 1950s India. Wonderfully translated from the Swedish to English by Anna Holmwood, The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love was a best-seller in Germany and translation rights have been bought in a dozen languages, including Thai and Icelandic.
With its simple tone, linear plot structure and rich descriptions of Indian rural and city life, Andersson carefully builds PK’s internal and external worlds. He also balances complex information about India's caste system.
The book opens with PK’s birth in Athmallik, a small village in the Eastern state of Orissa. His family is gathered around a wicker basket holding the infant and as in a fairy-tale, the village astrologer delivers a most unusual prophecy about the child.
You will marry a girl who is not from the village, she will own a jungle and be born under the sign of the ox.
With those words, PK’s fate is sealed. The astrologer’s predictions follow PK throughout his life and her words do indeed come true. But not before PK battles with the discrimination, poverty, and depression of belonging to India’s lowest caste.
Growing up Dalit in the village of Athmallik is not easy. PK cannot enter the village temple and the Brahmin priests, who belong to the highest caste, throw rocks at him. When he finally begins school, he is made to sit in a veranda outside, away from the other children. He longs to play with them but is deterred by his teacher. PK’s childhood pain and confusion are captured beautifully as he plays by the pond behind the school and gazes down at his own reflection in the water.
He searched the rippled image for the features, the colour perhaps, that made him different from the others. Maybe his nose was too flat, his complexion too dark, his hair too curly? Sometimes he thought he looked more like the forest creatures that played on the dark surface of the water. Other times, he concluded that, in fact, he looked just like all the other children.
As a young man in a new boarding school, the few times PK dares to speak up about the injustices he endures, he is told that his caste is a karma from his past life and that he must accept it. He tries to tame his anger and find justification.
It’s not their fault, he would explain to himself, they have been indoctrinated, taught to treat untouchables like lepers.
But because the caste system is PK’s greatest source of pain, no amount of rationalization will control his sense of injustice and his anger is uncomfortable. But anger is also PK’s greatest motivator. In 1971, when he is twenty years old, he wins a scholarship to the College of Art in New Delhi, one of the top art schools in India.
The anonymity of city life is a positive force in PK’s life. At the art school, his teachers and fellow students alike oppose the caste system and he is finally treated like any other student, his caste a mere afterthought. But while his art flourishes, money is scarce and he sleeps in the railway station, telephone booths, and under city bridges. Homelessness and hunger do not deter him, and he never stops drawing.
He began to draw people on the verge of starvation, expressionistic depictions of poverty that frightened people he showed them to.
He nearly dies of starvation himself, but a friend from the art school helps him, and PK spends over three months sleeping on this friend’s bedroom floor. Later, on a trip to Nepal, PK finds a solution for his money problems: he decides to draw people’s portraits and sets up shop in Cannaught Place, a large square in the heart of New Delhi. As he draws European tourists on their way to and from the Hippie Trail, he meets and falls in love with his future wife, a Swedish tourist named Lotta. She goes back to Europe and they are separated for over a year, when PK decides to go after her on his bicycle, pedaling nearly seven thousand miles miles to Sweden.
PK’s story is interspersed with mini chapters about Lotta—her childhood fascination with the East, her aristocratic background, a year spent in London studying nursing and finally, her decision to travel to India. Despite these and other details, Lotta’s character feels underdeveloped and readers may be left wanting a fuller picture of the woman PK fell so madly in love with.
Andersson’s direct and simple language beautifully captures India’s setting: its markets, busy streets and vegetation. At times however, the book’s pacing is uneven, particularly in its last two sections, which race to describe PK’s journey to Europe and assimilation to life in Sweden. Overall, The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love is an uplifting book that successfully captures PK’s biography and his power to forgive those who had denied him his humanity.
For a book full of so much mystery, the creative mission of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale is remarkable for its author's openness about choices regarding how to tell stories, how an author reveals information, and the dissecting and peeling away of the layers of artifice inherent in the reading and writing of fiction.
Broken into two parts, Part I begins with Mia, an average twelve-year-old in an average neighborhood attending an average school in South Korea in the 1990s. She is concerned with moving up to middle school, getting a new pullover, and trying out a new haircut that her mother surely wouldn’t like. It is also noted that Mia’s name means both “beautiful child” and “lost child,” dual markers that make the reader want to pay attention to her even though she carries on like as one might expect of a schoolgirl. However, Part I soon alternates from Mia’s story to that of the Child—described as more monstrous than human—a peer who is not even given a name. The Child is mostly ignored by her fellow students and completely ignored by the few adults that populate the novel. Every day, the Child comes to class with a new wound, be it covered bruises or a fingernail yanked clean off, leaving behind a wounded, bloody nub. Even with her stark abuses and injuries, The Child is meant to be erased, both by her thoughts and the author’s.
She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker. Every day, she grows darker. Enough for her body to gobble up her shadow. At school, she exists like a shadow. Or she has become a shadow and is absent.
The Child is able to lurk and ooze, yet she is not the only alarming aspect of this fifth-grade classroom. The adults, both parents and teachers, are always on the periphery, if not completely absent. The homeroom teacher is entirely oblivious to a horrid game the boys play in the back of the classroom called the fainting game, which entails choking each other until losing consciousness. The children also buy baby chicks from a street vendor with the intent of dropping them to their deaths from the roof of a building. Horror and violence permeate their lives and the narrative. Even happy Mia who likes her colored pencils and chatting with her desk mate, often perks up to explain that a fountain pen would be an ideal murder weapon, or so she once read in a detective novel.
The Child has a story too, but as she is constantly erasing herself, her actions throughout each chapter become more vividly heightened. With an unknown identity, the reasons for her behavior are frightening and enigmatic. After school hours, she sneaks back into the classroom and writes extra lines in the other students’ journals: “I hate you;” “Park Yeongwu killed the chick;” “I want to kill, too.” To the Child, she is revealing the children’s secrets, because otherwise the explicit thoughts written down for the privy of their homeroom teacher are generally mundane. When the teacher reads these addenda, he is horrified and threatens to get the police involved if no one steps forward to claim responsibility. In a world where the adults do not notice children strangling each other on a daily basis, it becomes even more horrifying that a generally benign transgression is what the teacher focuses on and takes seriously.
The bluntness of the violence is shocking, but somehow a natural part of the world that the author has built. It propels the narrative forward without ever quite normalizing it. The book creeps into the realm of horror reminding the reader that fairy tales were not originally stories of fluffy princesses and riches, but tales of nefarious sharp-toothed monsters, and atrocious and brutal outcomes. Part I ends with a provocative, but somehow anticipated ending.
In Part II, Han plays with a more experimental narrative, and while it does not have the same grounded feeling as Part I, the examination of storytelling is at the forefront. Here the narrative voice moves to first person, a mostly unknown narrator probing the events leading up to the shocking end of Part I. It's this narrator who questions what it is to write, how a story is told, and how an author manipulates the reader through the artifice of fiction.
Don’t be deceived by these words. I can package a certain story as a dream and tell it that way. I can disguise my childhood, and as I disguise it I can make allusions, and as I reveal details about allusions, I can make them appear fictitious, and in this way, I can deceive you all.
Explicitly name-checked with admiration by the narrator of Part II is Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence, a short work about the inability to write a story until time has passed. Death Sentence acts as a sort of key for reading the more opaque second-half of the novel. Bits of Part I are re-written and magnified with the idea of reading and writing as a shared experience. It’s as if the author is asking the reader, what do you expect from a story?
Janet Hong's translation retains Han's idiosyncratic play, her sense of mystery in language and thought. This play is so important to the project of the novel, wherein Han rewrites and reiterates details, words, and phrases, and scenarios. She is at her best in the concrete details of the novel, like the repeated images of the Child’s nubby, painful fingers, and Mia’s beloved expensive colored pencils. Less successful are those passages where the author is emphasizing a connection between an abstractraction—for example, a character’s dream—and the folded pathways of written language. During these less successful moments of recursive language, Han's constructs can hinder the momentum of her story-telling, occasionally even slipping into sloppy lyricism: “Brick you don’t look at brick me. Brick words don’t remember brick words. Brick dawn, brick morning, brick evening, brick night.” In these moments it can be difficult to unpack the author's intent. But that’s fine. The Impossible Fairy Tale is gripping in its horror, making commonplace environments completely unsettling, and the examination of story-telling itself, a curious endeavor.