(review based on the French edition - La Dénonciation)
What is it?
This is a book that was written by a North Korean writer still living there, but as it is against the government, it was smuggled through the border and published in South Korea in 2014. Bandi is a pseudonym. In the French edition there is quite a lot of information about him/her (the genre is not told – letīs suppose itīs a "he") - he was born in 1950, lived in China during his childhood, and is now an official writer for the government. A friend of him smuggled these short stories that were written between 1989 and 1995 - and that Bandi kept hidden all those years.
What the stories are about?
Every one of them tells how the North Korean dictatorship destroys the life of the individual. Usually we have someone whose father/grandfather/cousin/etc did something that displeased the Party years ago, so this someone nowadays canīt do anything, or have a good job, or go to the University. In some other stories, the protagonist is a member of the government, but while he worked hard during his lifetime, the only thing he has received is a couple of medals, or not even that. In some instances, any idea that goes against the government - even if they are essentially harmless - causes great pain to a whole family because the society, following the leaders without even thinking about it, turn against the individual.
I wonīt tell them one by one, to avoid spoiling anything.
Are they realistic?
They sound so. N. Korea is one of the countries in the world we know the less about, but thinking about everything I have read about it or watched, and remembering other writers that criticizes socialist countries, everything seem plausible. There is nothing in it that would make me think - "ah, he is creating that out of nowhere" (but I must say the stories are original, they donīt sound like nobody else I know). Well, I have read a bit about dictatorship and I can say - I have read worse situations. A lot worse. In fact, some injustices done to the protagonists in The Accusation would be considered bland things in works by others.
Is Bandi a good writer? Is he even a true writer, or just someone complaining against the government?
Bandi is a writer. In fact, I really think is quite plausible he is in fact member of a official group of writers - or a journalist. I canīt believe a common citizen in NK would be able to write those kinds of stories. Bandi must have had some practice before, must have read some other writers (but not that much). It would be possible if he lived in China, as they say, or if he has access to books other citizens donīt.
Is he ONE writer?
I read some people guessing maybe Bandi is a group of writers. Bandi is one guy. The seven stories were clearly written by the same person. If this is a ruse, itīs amazing - Hollywood-style.
But is he good?
Even if he is not, letīs say, Nobel-prize material, he is good. In certain moments, very good. In my opinion, there are many famous "serious" writters (I wonīt give names), that are considered great writers, with a bunch of awards in their names, that are weaker than Bandi.
He has some good things and some bad things. Usually his narratives are not chronological, and he tells actions without setting the scene beforehand - he will explain the situation later. He has a quite wide scope for someone living in NK - he writes about the factory worker, the militar, the politic, the jounalist, the actor, the farmer, with coherence, and he describes the country very well - small cities, the countryside or Pyongyang. He has "tonal harmonity" - the stories are focused, and he is able to transmit the feelings he wants. His characters are not complex, but we are dealing with short stories - the characters are correct. The most important thing are the relations between characters - between the worker and the boss, the citizen and the politician - and those are very good. His use of the language is way above the average (of course we must believe the translators), he is no amateur at all.
On the other hand, in other times he is too obvious - his metaphors are very direct. Ocasionally he overexplains things, but itīs very rare (a couple of cases). That is his worse quality. And I dare to say those 7 stories are enough using the structure he is using - I mean, they encompass a lot, so I donīt think a second book with the same ideas would be that nice. But we have no way of knowing if he has written other things, and what they are.
He really lives in NK? Or he is just an angry South Korean? Or a defector?
This, and almost everyhting else Iīm writing about him, is speculation. Maybe some years in the future Iīll be proven wrong. I canīt say he is still living in NK, but I believe he has indeed lived there. As I told, his scope is quite large, his historical settings are correct, etc. And he really writes like someone trapped.
Thereīs nothing specific about SK as a country (except thereīs a brief moment Bandi mention SK radio sending waves to NK), and it makes the idea that Bandi lives in NK more credible, because there is no dialetic between two different governments. The book is hermetic, so you wonīt see anything like - "if we could live like they live in SK" or "in that democratic country things are different". You have people landlocked in NK, that know Juche is wrong, the Party and the Kim dynasty are wrong, but they donīt have anything else to use as a pattern against it, they have no idea what is the world outside. And thatīs one of the most curious thing in the book. This sense of "living in a island" is very strong. In the other side of the border thereīs freedom, but thatīs it - the characters donīt have any other knowledge about it. They never mention what exists outside and is lacking inside (except obvious things like food). And as the characters are locked, so I believe Bandi is also - a man who donīt really know how a democratic country runs, or that has visited one. I believe someone who has at least visited another country with a different kind of government would not write like Bandi. I repeat myself, but the sense of being landlocked is very strong.
Having spent his childhood in China is possible, but if he was a defector – I really think a writer that has lived in other country besides NK would write a quite different book. Of course, he could have written those stories in NK and defected many years later – we donīt know.
Who should read this?
First of all, people who donīt like the Kim dinasty. If you are this person, this book is exactly what you want.
If you are Marxist, this book is not for you, because Bandi is very direct against it. For him, itīs literally a plague that must be extirpated from the world. I have studied Marx at the University, and I must say Bandiīs ideas are correct. He doesnīt go deep about it, though, but they are correct, and Marxist wonīt like them.
If you enjoy reading about the theme - remains of cold war, dictatorships, etc. - you will like it. As Iīve said, he is not a brilliant writer, but he is clearly gifted.
Maybe it will please the casual writer. But the stories are bleak. Thereīs no hope, no light in the end of the tunnel. Every single story has a sad ending.
But the stories are set, like, 25 years ago...
Yes, they are set during the dictatorship of Kim Il-Sung (he even is a secondary character in one of the stories!). But they are not one iota less interesting because of that. NK is not a country that changed that much, and this proves to me one thing - they are historically relevant, because they have a precise setting. Itīs not about any dictatorship, anytime, anywhere. Even if the Kim dynasty falls tomorrow, those stories wonīt loose anything.
How this book was received in SK?
Poorly. I have even read a famous SK writer saying the book is poorly written. I donīt read Korean, but in the French translation things are quite good. He is not a limited writer. But the fact is, people from the South donīt care too much about people in the North, defectors or otherwise. Many writers that are defectors find it a hard time publishing their books in the South. So, Bandi is no different.
In the other hand, around the world this book is being praised and celebrated. So, in my opinion, opinions in SK should not be taken in account.
Itīs hard to judge an author based in only one book. Maybe this will be everything we will read by him - maybe we will never know who he really is. Or maybe in a couple of years there will be pictures of him everywhere; the books he wrote for the government will be available, other "accusations" - who knows?
I was pleased with this book. He told what I wanted to read – itīs original, and makes perfect sense with everything else I knew about NK. He is an angry writer, but with style.
Thereīs one point on the whole story I admit itīs a bit strange. I admit I think itīs strange someone could be able to keep hidden for 20 years stories like that in NK. There, people are moved without warning, and if we imagine Bandi has kept on writing, he would have many and many more pages to hide away in his appartment. It would be full of forbidden texts... Of course maybe he had access to a simple computer and everything is filed in a small pendrive...
I was also thinking – he had a chance of a lifetime to smuggle his stories out of NK. Why did he choose those stories from the 90īs? Well, it was not a sure bet he could smuggle them out – they could have been taken away on the border. So maybe he decided to give his oldest stories to the guy who would taken them to SK. Itīs quite possible. I think many people would do the same. Anyway, it seems some poetry was also smuggled, so letīs wait to see what happens.
I tried my best to avoid pre-judge Bandi beforehand, or to feel pity for him or like him just because he is anti-NK. I really think those stories are well-written, serious and interesting. So, thumbs up, Iīm happy for having read them.