Booklist Online Review of Accusation

Initially published in South Korea in 2014, The Accusation continues to make international history as the first literary work smuggled out of repressive North Korea, now headed for shelves around the world. Bandi—whose pseudonym is derived from firefly, an obvious nod to the insect’s small light amid vast darkness—shockingly remains a prominent North Korean writer. None of his native readers, however, will ever have access to these seven illuminating stories that reveal desperate lives enduring terrifying day-to-day challenges. Written between 1989 and 1995, they share a common, reverberating theme: that survival—already threatened by starvation, betrayal, brutality—can hinge on details as absurdly trivial as a crate of rice seedlings, the timing of closed curtains, the placement of an elm tree, a travel pass. British translator Smith (whose rendering of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won 2016’s Man Booker International Prize) expertly delivers Bandi’s subversive prose with nuanced grace. The afterword further explicates the manuscript’s remarkable journey out, with an additional note from the South Korean activist who enabled the precarious north-south crossing. As Bandi’s characters both fear and sling accusations, the title takes on piercing gravitas for readers: knowingly turning a blind eye to such inhumanity is not an option.

— Terry Hong


Mar. 2017. 256p. Grove, hardcover, $25 (9780802126207)
REVIEW.  First published February 15, 2017 (Booklist).

Review of Human Acts from The Washington Post

Human Acts Han Kang

One of the first details we learn about Dong-ho, the 15-year-old boy at the center of Han Kang’s “Human Acts,” is that he’s nearsighted. We meet him as he rests beneath a ginkgo tree, squinting at the space between branches, imagining raindrops “suspended in the air, held breath before the plunge.” His reverie is interrupted by a nearby memorial service, where thousands have gathered to sing and mourn. As Dong-ho fully opens his eyes — and the gaze of Kang’s novel pans outward — his stark surroundings come into searing focus. Dong-ho rises and returns to his post at a municipal gymnasium, where he and a small group of teenage volunteers tend to unclaimed corpses awaiting burial. The bodies have been brutalized: skulls crushed, throats slashed by bayonets, blood emptied until their skin glows ghostly in the light of flickering candles. The boy is tasked with uncovering the battered faces so that bereaved visitors might identify lost loved ones. “If only your eyesight was worse, so anything close up would be nothing more than a vague, forgiving blur,” thinks Dong-ho. “But there is nothing vague about what you have to face now. You don’t permit yourself the relief of closing your eyes as you peel back the cloth, or even afterward, as you draw it back up again.”

Like Kang’s widely acclaimed novel “The Vegetarian,” the first of her works to be translated from Korean by Deborah Smith, “Human Acts” is ruthless in its refusal to look away from atrocity. Both slim, polyphonic novels stare down violence and vulnerability, cruelty and confusion. Yet while “The Vegetarian” confronts such material in the context of a troubled family, “Human Acts” centers on the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea. Following the assassination of the nation’s dictator, Park Chung-hee, in 1979, burgeoning civil unrest brought impositions of martial law, increased authoritarianism and curtailed freedom of the press. In May 1980, paratroopers and police ruthlessly attacked protesting students and unarmed civilians in the city of Gwangju. The uprising lasted 10 days, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The aftermath of that trauma, including the subsequent torture of prisoners and government suppression of facts and casualty figures, reverberates into today.

Composed of astonishing images and visceral detail, “Human Acts” forces readers into achingly close contact not just with this instance of violence, but also the violence inherent to the human condition. As one survivor observes of the massacre: “It happened in Gwangju just as it did on Jeju Island, in Kwantung and Nanjing, in Bosnia, and all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World, with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.”

[A woman going mad, and a radical refusal, in ‘The Vegetarian’]

And yet the emotional intensity of “Human Acts” does not arise from its devastating depictions of violence alone. The novel also wrenches the heart with its surprising tenderness, its intimacy in the face of cruelty, and its insistence that beneath the darkest aspects of humanity, there is also a vein of inviolable love. Consisting of seven interlocking perspectives that span 30 years, the novel interweaves voices of the innocent and bereaved, academic and imprisoned, those struggling to bear scars from the past, and even that of a disembodied soul.

“Human Acts” also draws upon Kang’s experience growing up in Gwangju, where she lived until her family moved to Seoul a few months before the uprising. Kang learned about the massacre only after uncovering a memorial photobook produced by foreign journalists that her father had secreted away: “I remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet,” she writes. “Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there.” 

Kang’s masterful pacing and extraordinary attentiveness allow her to recount the gruesome history of the Gwangju Uprising while returning — always returning — to nuanced scenes of kindness and love, which pour light upon an otherwise desolate backdrop. Radiant moments of solidarity are scattered throughout the book: people lining up to give blood at the hospital while troops close in; women handing out strawberries and rice balls to protesting students; crowds of civilians singing even as the city runs out of coffins. “Those snapshot moments, when it seemed we’d all performed the miracle of stepping outside the shell of our own selves, one person’s tender skin coming into grazed contact with another, felt as though they were rethreading the sinews of that world heart, patching up the fissures from which blood had flowed, making it beat again.” 

The different narrators in “Human Acts” exist in close association, although any confusion this invites only serves one of the novel’s main points: Every human is part of a vast and encompassing network, linked by shared history and coexistence. If the Gwangju Uprising acted as a centrifugal force — atomizing families and communities, obliterating bodies and homes — it also drew together those who emerged from the wreckage. And as Kang so poignantly demonstrates, this tragic event continues to draw even those not directly influenced into bonds of recovery and accountability.

Article via The Washington Post

First review of The Accusation from Publisher's Weekly

Bandi The Accusation

With these uncompromising stories, the pseudonymous Bandi gives a rare glimpse of life in the “truly fathomless darkness” of North Korea. A Pyongyang housewife is accused of attempting to communicate with spies for closing her drapes in “City of Specters.” In “So Near, Yet So Far,” a man finds his village unreachable when he illegally journeys to see his dying mother. Lacking proper documentation, he is forced into a truck, like a pig “being sent to the slaughterhouse.” A similar arc is traced throughout Bandi’s collection, but the most cutting story is “Pandemonium.” A frustrated Mrs. Oh escapes a provincial train station that has been locked down for 32 hours because Kim Il-Sung is traveling in the area. On the way to a nearby relative’s house, she stumbles upon the “Great Leader” himself, a man whose “pale golden clothes seemed to shed a soft veil of mist.” Just as he is graciously giving her a ride, her granddaughter suffers a broken leg back at the station when she’s “buried in a tide of humanity.” Whatever little moral ambiguity the situation might offer is eclipsed by the clarity of Bandi’s anger. The story of the Great Leader’s kindness begins “ringing out from the loudspeaker” of every town in the nation. The only response possible are the granddaughter’s anguished cries, rising in “a full-blown howl.” An endnote about how Bandi’s collection was smuggled out of the country reveals just how miraculous it is that it exists at all

 Article via Publisher's Weekly