A Collection of North Korean Stories and the Mystery of Their Origins

“The Accusation” may be the first work of dissident fiction by a living North Korean writer ever smuggled out of that country. Photograph by Gavin Hellier / Alamy

“The Accusation” may be the first work of dissident fiction by a living North Korean writer ever smuggled out of that country.

Photograph by Gavin Hellier / Alamy

The story goes something like this: nearly thirty years ago, a talented North Korean propagandist secretly began writing fiction critical of the North Korean regime. When a catastrophic famine beset North Korea in the mid-nineties, the propagandist’s misgivings about his country’s leadership deepened. Over the next several years, he chronicled the deprivation and disillusionment of his countrymen in a series of stories that he shared with no one. Roughly two decades later, a close relative defected to South Korea, and the writer saw an opportunity to get his work across the border. In 2014, a book of his stories was published in South Korea under the pen name Bandi, which means “firefly.” It is believed to be the first work of dissident fiction by a living North Korean writer ever smuggled out of that country.

Earlier this year, an English translation was published by Grove Atlantic, with the title “The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea.” In an afterword, the writer Kim Seong-dong chronicles the journey of Bandi’s seven-hundred-and-fifty-page manuscript. According to Kim, Bandi is a member of the official North Korean writer’s league, and wrote the stories between 1989 and 1995. Bandi’s defector relative alerted the South Korean human-rights activist Do Hee Yun to the existence of the secret manuscript, and it was Do who took up the task of getting the work out of North Korea. He enlisted a friend based in China, who had relatives in the town where Bandi lived. The manuscript travelled hidden inside a copy of “The Selected Works of Kim Il-sung.”

Read more of the article in The New Yorker

Welcome, Kaja Malanowska to our agency !

kaja malanowska

Malanowska (born 1974) has published a short story collection and three novels, including “Fog”. Her debut novel, the autobiographical Drobne szaleństwa dnia codziennego [Small Madnesses of Everyday Life, 2010], established her as one of Poland’s most promising young writers. In 2012, her second novel Patrz na mnie, Klaro! [Look at Me, Klara!] was nominated for two of Poland’s most prestigious awards – Paszport Polityki and Nike (shortlist). Malanowska has been noted for her complex and realistic characters and her courage to address taboo subjects such as mental health or social and political justice issues. “Fog” is sort of experiment in writing for a broader readership: the fact that genre fiction functions according to strict parameters and is less forgiving than literary fiction challenged her to hone her craft as a writer. Malanowska is a columnist for the prominent left-wing intellectual periodical Krytyka polityczna (Political Critique) and has provoked public debate by highlighting the precarious conditions of writers in Poland. She holds a PhD in 2 bacterial genetics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and speaks fluent English. She is currently working on the prequel to “Fog” – a psychological thriller featuring the same female lead.

A reviewer in Germany fully understands my new book. It is so gratifying to an author to be understood so well!

When the sea belonged to us by Barbara J. Zitwer
"But a bad day at sea is better than the best day on land." 

Everything starts in the water, everything ends in the water. The cycle of life is defined by an element that dominates our globe and ourselves. For a long time, reading novels have been devoted to the oceans , which give generations of readers the feeling of sitting in a boat. Urges and unexplored depths attract us as much as the mysterious creatures of the sea. What started in my reading with " Moby Dick " and continued in the " salt for the sea " and the wandering course " Nordnordwest ", attracts me again and again magically when I can read in the sea. 

" When the sea belonged to us " by Barbara J. Zitwer, published by rütten and loening, attracted my attention in several respects. The cover shows a boy who seems to swim completely immersed in the immediate vicinity of a diving whale. A picture that does not seem menacing, but reflects much more the Bayitel. A first information about the scene of the action, filled me with the hope of having found another novel in the series of my life- series " Leuchtturm-Literatur " . 

Montauk on Long Island , not only because of its proximity to New York, but also because of the flagship of this coastal strip, the Montauk Lighthouse and thus a book that I would like to rank in the beacon stories of reading. Novels, which also offer orientation in dark reading. Rescue from deep reading distress guarantee. I was not disappointed. Neither from the Schauplatz, nor from the sea-affine fundamentalism of the novel, and certainly not from the content. 

"This is where the whole time happens so much ... Here, you will never get bored." 

A quotation that stands for a whole novel. Facet richness and the expansion of the narrative space to the expanse of the sea turn a well-told story into a journey for landrat and seafarers. Montauk becomes a metaphor for the escape of a woman who throws life out of the way in a completely surprising way. Montauk is the goal of reorientation and the anchor point at the highest seas, and Montauk becomes an idyll for us readers, the ideal of a small, healthy world where friends and neighbors still live in their roles. But it is also the symbol of a submerged world that is threatened by its proximity to New York in the commercial stream. 

Tess Harding, wife, mother of a deaf son and shoe design workaholic stands today at the crossroads of her life. Like her, her husband is killed. Pointless. Groundless, destiny. Her life consists only of concern for Robbie, who can not cope with the death of his father. He was too much of an introverted musician, the great music producer, too strong was the imprint, and the father had left too many traces in the life of his son to be able to handle at the age of only nine, which can not be coped with. 

Tess Harding gets out! It is not only the loss of the beloved partner, but also the concomitant circumstances, which slowly come to light, they wear down and the world sinks into a dark mist of reproaches, doubts and self-reproaches. Montauk becomes the vanishing point. Her uncle Ike, his marvelous motel and the landscape that Tess knows from her childhood promise to provide shelter and shelter. Not without internal resistance, Robbie can also be moved to this move on time. His trauma, however, can not be applied to anything. He closes. 

Anyone who expects a typical developmental romance on the basis of a decisive experience here will only be confirmed in parts. The new circumstances of life prove to be beneficial to the tormented souls. Friends, neighbors and the family give a halt and the author leads us step by step into quieter waters. The unused and brilliantly interwoven core elements of history, however, clearly distinguish them from the simplicity of the ordinary. 

There is a deaf boy who carries the musical talent of the father, plays the tuba, feels the vibrations of the music like an absolute hearing and can not only control gestures, but can also participate by means of his implanted hearing aids. A boy who desperately struggles against loss, blames his mother for destiny and threatens to sink into it. There is the marine biologist Kip , who sails the coast of Montauk in search of the miracle of the whale songs and learns a new miracle in Robbie. A boy, for whom the melody of a whale does not seem to be a secret. 

There are the people of Montauk fighting against the demise of their city. There is a mood of a new beginning, a departure and a struggle on a seemingly lost post. There is the desperate mother who has lost more than her husband. An additional loss that breaks her self-esteem. And there is nature, there is a whale that draws its circles, joy of life, although he is also threatened. A whale that carries the miracle of life in its solitude. And there are the coincidences of life, which make believe that everything can be well again. 

And there is an author who magically combines all. The whale with the people, the music of the tuba with the whale song, the melody of death and loss with the sound of a new beginning, people with each other and the great unknown hope with the apparently predestined. Barbara J. Zitwer conjures up a brilliant symphony of the new beginning from the farewell of a life. The melody, in which she relates, is dramatic, sad, life-affirming, cheerful, doubtful, comic, excessive, and deeply closed at the same time. This melody has everything that great compositions need. It reaches the heart. 

ASTROLIBRIUM, Germany                                                                                                                                        

Article and images are from AstroLibrium

The Muslim Butcher by SON Hong-Kyu

translated by
MerwinAsia/WEL - contract up in 2019.
2016
181pp.

Twentieth-century South Korea has promoted itself as a highly developed, affluent, and coherent society, but not quite everywhere in the country, and not even everywhere in its showcase capital, yet conforms to the official image. Son Hong-kyu sets The Muslim Butcher in the Seoul that the official branders would prefer visitors didn't see: the grimy hillside slums crowded
with illegal dwellings and their occupants too poor, disturbed, disgraced, or foreign to dare emerge from the margins.

But Seoul's redevelopmental churn has obliterated most of these areas thatexisted in the 1970s or 80s in which Son sets his novel, a time with the cop show Chief Investigator still at the height of its popularity and enough Korean War veterans still alive to regularly gather in reunions by the hundreds. If its particular neighborhood ever did exist, it hasn't for along time; the book ends with its young protagonist awaiting the bulldozers that will clear away the only home apart from orphanages and churches he's
ever known.
From the perspective of adulthood, the narrator recounts his early adolescence in this milieu of societal outcasts without futures as he struggles with his own lack of a past. Having lost all memory of an apparently harrowing early childhood that left him without parents and a body inexplicably covered in scars, he rebels against the structure of each institution in which the system places him until the day the Muslim butcher of the title, an aged Turk named Hassan, shows up to take him in.

"Uncle Hassan," as he becomes, runs one of Seoul's countless pink-lit butcher shops. There he spends all day carving up pork, a surprising occupation for a Muslim but one whose low status suits his own as an outsider. "Of the customers, the local Koreans pretended they didn't know Uncle Hassan if they ran into him outside the shop," the narrator remembers. "The threshold of the butcher shop wasn't merely a threshold but a border that divided this world from that."

The other denizens of "this world" include Aunt Anna, the proprietor of the blood-sausage soup restaurant at the center of the tumbledown community, a middle-aged woman apparently without a family, and Uncle Amos, the Greek who lives upstairs, penniless and a compulsive liar to boot. Not long after settling into Hassan's apartment (the only home in Korea he'd ever seen, he notes, without the president's portrait on display), he soon finds friends his own age.

The slum's children, though, seem even more damaged than its eccentric adults. Kim Yujong, the stuttering son of a coal-seller unattractive to the point of deformity, claims both literary ambitions (modeling himself, it seems, after the occupation-era novelist of the same name) and, with eerie confidence, an ability to understand the language of animals, converting it,
the narrator says, "into the language handed down by our parents" but "mixed with various inflections and unknown vocabulary."

The presence of Yujong, a youngster preternaturally "mesmerized by the inaccuracy of language," establishes this as a novel deeply concerned not just with issues like prejudice and discrimination in an ostensibly economically classless and ethnically homogenous country, but with communication itself. Though profane, the language of the slum convinces the narrator that "the world is made in such a way that simple language wins: money, love, honor, friendship, happiness . . . Even swear words were
trapped by the vernacular, gradually losing their sharp edges and vulgarity before being integrated into it."

Under these basic exigencies, its people cohere into a makeshift family, with all the passing resentments and unlikely allegiances that implies: the narrator describes an elaborately delusional veteran and an unhealthy child, briefly inseparable, as "noun-like characters, so when they walked side by side, they became something of a compound noun." Toward the story's end, Son
gathers nearly all the characters into a truck for a hog-slaughtering picnic out in Aunt Anna's hometown. On the way, "Yujong reminded us of the meaning of picnic, sopung, so meaning strolling and pung meaning wind, walking in
the wind."

Yujong's lesson brings back to mind the first thing Hassan teaches the narrator about the meaning of Islam: "submission, sunjong in Korean." Hassan, not without dignity, submits to fate that first brought him so far from his homeland as a soldier in the Korean War, relegates him to a livelihood at odds with his religion, and ultimately consumes that livelihood itself. But despite the "adoptive father's blood" flowing in his veins, the equally tempest-tossed narrator, Son hints, won't live his life so passively.

Sine Ergün: 2017 European Union Prize for Literature

About the author:

Sine Ergün (1982) is a writer based in Istanbul, Turkey. She has published three books: Burası Tekin Değil (It’s not Safe Here, Yitik Ülke Publishing, 2010; Can Publishing, 2012), Bazen Hayat (Life, Sometimes, Can Publishing, 2012) and Baştankara (Titmouse, Can Publishing, 2016). In 2013, she received the 59th Sait Faik Short Story Award for her book Bazen Hayat(Life, Sometimes). Her translation works, essays, interviews, poetry, and short stories have been published in several literature magazines, and Ergün herself has worked as an editor at Notos Book and edited Notos magazine. Since 2012, she has been working as the founding director of the art initiative maumau. She is currently preparing her next show as a curator as well as working on an anthology on Bartleby Syndrome – the Writers of No.

Publishing house:
Can Yayınları

Website
E-mail
+90 212 252 56 75

Book awarded:
Baştankara (Chickadee), 2016

Synopsis:
The book's 23 stories in 80 pages are succinct: the shortest story is just one page long, the longest six pages, plainly written with depth and variety. Each story is an independent being, inviting the reader to start a new challenge.

Her Decree With Force of Law (Kanun Hükmünde Kararname) is a political satire on a highly abstract level: it is realistic, though also dreamlike. That story in itself could be considered sufficiently enlightening with regards to the situation in Turkey.

The concluding piece illustrates the overall atmosphere succinctly: a truck driver, after many years of solitary driving, is unable to leave his truck any more and sits nailed to the steering wheel. This indeed is an unnerving parable of the human condition.

In her stories, the themes she deals with are: alienation to oneself and to others; facing mediocrity; coming to terms with the past, the present and the future; revolt to inner and outer pressures; challenging your reality; seeing your city, your environment and your surroundings with different eyes; making choices; and looking deeper and deeper into one's soul.

Excerpt:
Translated from Turkish by Ümit Hussein

THE LONG JOURNEY

“And I do not value solitude at all.

I do not value myself when I’m alone.”

Peter Handke, The Left-Handed Woman

The woman did not choose the man, nor the man the woman to accompany him on a long journey. When it was time for them to leave they looked first at each other, then all around them, and having no other option, set out together.

Until they left the city, they followed the roads they knew. When they arrived at the city’s edge they saw it was surrounded by silver soil. There was a narrow path before them. The man advanced quickly, but paused to survey the area, while the woman walked without altering her pace, with a dull curiosity.

The road neither narrowed nor widened. From the first day, it was narrow enough for them to touch one another when they walked side by side, an option they strongly rejected. When the sun came out, the soil shone so brightly it was a job to make out even a single path. At night, first the stars, then the soil, would light up and go out, the two blurring into one another. No one knows how much time passed in that way. After a long while the man said, Everyone’s left; they went on, listening to their footsteps, A long time ago, said the woman. Why did they leave us behind? I wasn’t able to choose who I went with, said the woman, I didn’t notice them leaving, no one told me. The woman paused. Haven’t we walked enough for today, she said, No, we might be able to catch up with them.

First the path, then all the soil turned into a shade of red never seen before. They continued walking without coming across a single footprint. After countless days the man said, Your silence is getting on my nerves, You’re silent too, said the woman, if you spoke I’d listen. Again they walked for days.

When they reached the waterfront they weren’t thirsty, but they drank. They sat down for the first time since setting out. They touched the red soil for the first time. When I was a child I killed a bird, said the man, I didn’t kill it, my friend killed it, he wasn’t even my friend, we just happened to be together that day. He said let’s eat it, we plucked its feathers, but still, when I bit into it I kept getting feathers in my mouth. Why did I go along with him? He stood up, reached out towards the water, drank, and turned, in anger, Why didn’t they take us? I, said the woman, wasn’t able to choose who I went with, You think you’re superior, that’s why, said the man, that’s the reason why you’re lonely, I watch you all the time while you’re walking, you think you’re even more superior than the soil you tread on. Your silence is getting on my nerves, I’d be better off by myself, at least then I’d know I was alone. I’m sleepy, said the woman, I think I’m going to have a dream.

In her dream the woman was moving through the depths of the water. There was no sign indicating where she was headed. She knew.

In his dream the man was at the tip of a slope. He knew he could fly. That was all.   

When they awoke the woman was talkative, the man silent. I gave away all the books I loved, said the woman, I never gave away anything I loved, said the man.

The woman said, After this the path will disappear, we’ll have to choose where we go. You’re going to want to go in one direction and I in another. It won’t matter where we go, what will matter is that we stay together. The path will vanish, said the man, I’m going to want to go in one direction and you in another. If we go our separate ways then so be it. What will matter is where we’re going.           

The red soil turned irremediably black, while the sky turned spectacularly white. When night fell, not a single star came out, nor did the moon. And if there were a path before them, it had disappeared from view. The man found the woman’s hand within the cloying blackness and pulled it, This way, he said, the woman was undecided, she acquiesced, they continued.

When the stars slowly began to appear within the relentless darkness, the man could not contain his cry of joy. Releasing their hands, they looked first at the sky, then at each other. The woman told the man that the stars had once been a large family all living together, but had separated after a quarrel that no one wanted to talk about and that, to avoid causing each other any more hurt, they had promised not to go within more than a certain distance of each other and spread themselves out in the sky. The man listened to the story, distracted, Let’s go, he said.           

By the time the soil regained its colour, enough time had passed for them to forget what shade it had been. The straight road curved up a hill. They walked. They saw a tiny hut on the other side of the hill. They went in. It was the woman’s house. It was the man’s house too. Only they didn’t remember that. They sat down. Enough time passed for blue veins to sprout on their hands. 

A noise. Dull shooting. At first it seemed to be coming from far away, then from themselves. The man stood up, he paced around the room. He listened to the room, to himself. When he headed for the fridge door he knew he would find a man curled up into a ball inside. It took so long, said the man-who-came-out-of-the-fridge reproachfully, I was about to freeze as I fought for all I was worth to get out of there. The man sat down again, the man-who-came-out-of-the-fridge stuck with them. His coldness shrouded first the room, then their bodies. 

STATUTORY DECREE

Although everyday life was disrupted during the first few days when the Ban on Stepping on the Street came into force by Statutory Decree, over time everything returned to normal.

Right from the first day, nothing changed for the people whose journeys consisted of going from one car park to another, and they were delighted to see the back of the pedestrian traffic. As for everyone else, they travelled to work by means of ropes suspended between apartment buildings. Although it took longer than it used to, somehow they still managed to fulfill their daily obligations.

Naturally, the population hadn’t taken the ban lying down. Many a columnist had used strong language to criticise the City Council’s decision, on the grounds that the streets were an important part of city culture and summoned the people to take to the streets in protest. However, the ban itself and the severity of the measures the City Council took against anyone who flouted it made it impossible for the summons to bear any fruit. The need to get to work weighed heavily on even the ban’s most vehement opponents, and people found ways of carrying on with their lives without stepping on the street.

Enough time passed for people to forget that stepping on the street was banned. With time, stepping on the street took on the status of one of the surreal events in the stories that grandfathers tell their grandchildren. 

Like everyone else, Selim, who worked on the top floor of the city’s tallest skyscraper, had never stepped on the street. The closest he had come was when he had descended to a distance of some ten metres from the ground on a day when the ropes had grown slack in the heat.

One day, as he was smoking on the skyscraper’s roof terrace, he saw a bird. Given that he saw more birds than people in his day-to-day life he was used to them, but this bird was unlike any of the others that he saw. Its wings were so small, it was a miracle they had managed to carry it up that high. There was a black mark on its head. It eyed Selim without moving. Then it started flying somewhere above him and was out of sight in an instant. In the days that followed, the same incident recurred countless times.

That day Selim went to work with a rope with a longish hook attached to the end. When he went up to the roof terrace the bird was there again, staring, waiting. They gazed at each other for a while, then once again the bird flapped its wings towards the same destination and vanished out of sight. Selim swung the rope in the air. And with a sharp clang it hooked onto something. Anyone looking up from below would think the rope was hanging in mid-air, but as the hook had hooked onto something, it clearly led somewhere. He started climbing. He disappeared out of sight.

The next day no one noticed that Selim wasn’t at work. In the days that followed, one of his colleagues noticed the rope on the roof terrace hanging in mid-air, climbed up and he too disappeared out of sight. With time the number of people in the city tossing ropes up into the sky and disappearing increased.

When a ban on climbing up into the sky was issued by Statutory Decree there was hardly anyone left in the city.

PEOPLE LIKE YOU

It was morning when she reached the city. She could barely remember a thing. She had got on the bus and gone to sleep.

She got off the bus. She entered the station. There were lone individuals sitting on metal seats in the centre of the glass-enclosed building. No one spoke to anyone. Yet she could hear murmuring. She went out. She walked. She walked for a long time, in fog so thick she could barely see her footsteps. It was an effort to make out the buildings. They were all tall, greyish yellow, without balconies.

She made out the light, Hotel, she entered, One night she said, the man handed over the key without a word, she paid and went up to the room. Greyish yellow walls, a bed with a blanket, a table, a mirror. She locked the door and left the key in the lock. She drifted off to sleep.

She awoke to the sound of the telephone. I’m going to ask you to vacate the room, said the voice. Why, she asked. Did you come here for a rendezvous, we don’t allow rendezvous in this hotel. She didn’t remember if she had gone there for a rendezvous. Why, she repeated. I don’t know, said the voice, you don’t look like the kind of person who would come here. What kind of person did she look like, she didn’t ask. She looked in the mirror, first she made out her eyes, her nose. Then her lips, her wide forehead, her eyebrows, her cheeks. As she looked her face changed, instead of looking at her, the eyes reflected in the mirror searched the room uneasily. Her nose began to grow indistinct, her eyes disappeared into their sockets. All that wasted effort, she thought. When she drifted off to sleep, the fog had shrouded the room.

Once again she awoke to the sound of the telephone. You need to vacate the room, said the voice. No, she replied. I’m not asking you, vacate the room. She would not, besides, she couldn’t. She looked in the mirror, she tried to make out her face through the fog, there was nothing there. How long had it been, what had she looked like before, she couldn’t remember. But still, no one could evict her from the room for not looking like anyone. She drifted off to sleep.=

She awoke to the sound of knocking at the door. Vacate the room, said the voice on the other side. I’m not going to ask where you came from, I’ll give you your money back, I’ll pay you extra if you like, as long as you leave. No, she said, but she couldn’t hear her voice. If you don’t leave I’ll smash the lock, you’re leaving no matter what. I’m telling you for your own good, people like you shouldn’t come here. She waited. She heard the footsteps growing faint. She drifted off to sleep. 

She awoke to the sound of talking. It’ll cost you, said a voice, this is a sturdy lock, I don’t care, said the voice, just as long as you smash it. Under the blanket she waited for them to smash the lock. Some time later, she heard the sound of footsteps in the room. She must have climbed out of the window, said the voice. How, asked the other voice. I don’t know, said the voice, the only thing that matters is that she’s left.

A Gift from Darkness review – harrowing account of a Boko Haram kidnapping

theguardian.com

theguardian.com

his harrowing book, subtitled How I Escaped With My Daughter from Boko Haram, tells the story of newly pregnant 19-year-old Nigerian Patience, whose husband and mother were murdered by militants. One day, she is kidnapped by Boko Haram and her ordeal is recounted in unflinching detail: the beatings, rapes and torture meted out to her and fellow prisoners and how she escaped and survived with her baby daughter, Gift. The book is co-written with Andrea C Hoffmann, a journalist and expert on victim traumatisation, and switches between Hoffmann’s account of visiting Nigeria, the challenges of interviewing Patience about her painful past and vivid accounts from Patience herself. Translated by Shaun Whiteside, this is a valuable document, contributing raw experience of terror, trauma and recovery, as well as insight into the techniques of telling the most traumatic of stories.

• A Gift from Darkness by Patience Ibrahim and Andrea C Hoffmann is published by Little, Brown (£13.99). To order a copy for £11.89 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Despotic North Korea prompts ordinary people to do extraordinary things

Bandi (it means firefly in Korean) is the pseudonym of a male dissident writer still living in North Korea. This extract is from one story in a collection titled The Accusation. The stories were smuggled out in 2013. The South Korean publication in 2014 was a historic first; nothing like it has emerged in the 68 years since the peninsula was divided. It has since, according to the New York TImes, been published in 20 countries and translated into 18 languages. 

Read more: http://www.afr.com/lifestyle/arts-and-entertainment/books/despotic-north-korea-prompts-ordinary-people-to-do-extraordinary-things-20170418-gvmphp#ixzz4etpJNfhW 
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On the DMZ’s ‘Bridge of Freedom’: Rare North Korean Fiction

The recent reading from North Korean author Bandi’s ‘The Accusation’ on the Bridge of Freedom in the Korean peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone. Image: Provided by Barbara Zitwer

The recent reading from North Korean author Bandi’s ‘The Accusation’ on the Bridge of Freedom in the Korean peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone. Image: Provided by Barbara Zitwer

Now in a second printing by Grove Press in the USA, ‘The Accusation: Forbidden Stories From Inside North Korea’ finds a growing international audience.

Read the full article here.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg review – a Polish childhood

*Article via the guardian

WiolettaGregGuardian

There is something perpetually fascinating about coming-of-age narratives, especially when they unfold in a secret country of the past where they do things differently from that of our own childhood. Better yet if they come from the mind of a poet who understands brevity. This enchantingly elliptical fiction debut by British-domiciled Polish poet Wioletta Greg (right) sparkles with a gem-like quality. Thanks to Eliza Marciniak’s crisp translation, it brings freshness even to the crowded genre of the novella-sized bildungsroman, and can be devoured alongside the best coming-of-age translations of recent years, such as Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera and The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov.

Set in the fictional but autobiographically inspired village of Hektary in southern Poland during the 1970s and 80s, Swallowing Mercury is a richly textured portrait of a culture now lost: rural life under one of the milder communist regimes. Though the translator’s contextualising note at the end is useful, Greg straightaway plunges us into a deftly signposted world where jarring elements coexist almost magically. The opening scene of survival and superstition sets the tone: the narrator Wiola is born shortly after her mother is enlisted into a five-year building plan involving cement mixing. An unwilling Stakhanovite, the mother is loyal to pagan custom and ties red string around the baby’s wrist to ward off evil spells. A church ritual follows. With a surprising level of state tolerance for religious practices, every second chapter revolves around a ritual, half-Catholic, half pagan. In Hektary, children cross themselves at roadside shrines, adults say “Holy Mother of God” a lot, and tales of Jerusalem are invoked by mother and grandmother.

In the early childhood scenes, Wiola’s take on her world leans towards the sweetly folkloric – women gather on “feathering evenings” to tear up feathers for stuffing, make cakes on Fat Thursday and refer to periods as “the blood-relation from America” – but any tonal feyness morphs into a wry candour as Wiola’s gaze evolves. Her drawing of a potato beetle is interpreted by a regional art committee as portraying “the crusade of the imperialist beetle”; the friendly children’s doctor puts his penis in her hand “like a roll of modelling clay” – the disparity between the magnitude of the child’s experiences and their unspeakability to the distracted adults is the grit that creates an affecting narrative. In a world of gruff affections and few words, Wiola survives and even thrives thanks to a sly resourcefulness and a country child’s sensory attunement: bread tastes better in the dark; after rain the air smells of “watermelon pulp”; at a provincial wedding “trotters quivered on a plate”. While selling sour cherries at the market with her grandmother, Wiola is devastated by an emotional event whose only outward expression is an infected splinter in her palm.

There are timeless images of country life and death here, one-line descriptions brimming with untold stories, as when her grandmother is glimpsed crossing the fields with a pram full of poppy heads instead of her first-born who has died. Greg is brilliantly humane and subtle in her character studies. An unnamed man on a bus tells Wiola of love and murder in his rural childhood with shocking casualness. But then, in sleepy Hektary, everybody has shocking secrets – even the straight-laced seamstress. In one haunting scene, Wiola lies next to her mother, chewing poppy seeds, and listens to the story of her mother’s schoolmate who went mad because she had to “finish dreaming” the dreams of a local girl executed by the Germans. Never more than a shadow, “the Germans” and the Soviets nevertheless loom behind all village and family history. All characters, even peripheral ones such as Gienek the Combine Driver, are subtly double creations – archetypical and rooted in a specific twilight of history.

Greg moves back and forth across time with a poet’s panache. It is refreshing to find a fiction writer so free of stylistic pomp, so and finely attuned to the truth of her material, a novel so sensually saturated. The full cumulative power of Greg’s prose is felt towards the end, as it accelerates alongside Wiola’s adolescence – until we are swept into the unknown.

 

Wioletta Greg Makes the Man Booker Prize Longlist

Wioletta Grzegorzewska during the Nike award gala 2014, photo: Bartosz Krupa / East News

Wioletta Grzegorzewska during the Nike award gala 2014, photo: Bartosz Krupa / East News

*Article via Culture.PL*

The Polish author’s book Swallowing Mercury, a story of coming-of-age in a sleepy village Poland under the communist regime, is among the thirteen titles on the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2017 longlist.

On 15th March 2017, the Man Booker Prize judges announced their 2017 longlist, which celebrates the finest works of translated fiction from around the world. The list includes books by authors from France, Poland, Israel, Belgium, Norway, Albania, Iceland, China, Germany, Denmark and Argentina. The judges took 126 books from around the globe into consideration.

Nick Barley, chair of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize judging panel, says:

It’s been an exceptionally strong year for translated fiction. Our longlist consists of books that are compulsively readable and ferociously intelligent. From powerful depictions and shocking exposés of historical and contemporary horrors to intimate and compelling portraits of people going about their daily lives, our longlisted books are above all breathtakingly well-written. Fiction in translation is flourishing: in these times when walls are being built, this explosion of brilliant ideas from around the world arriving into the English language feels more important than ever.

Wioletta Greg is only the second Polish writer to be taken into consideration for the prize. The famous Polish science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem was nominated for the inaugural Man Booker Prize in 2005.

Greg’s book was met with great critical acclaim when it came out at the beginning of 2017 in the United Kingdom. Kapka Kassabova of The Guardian writes:

There is something perpetually fascinating about coming-of-age narratives, especially when they unfold in a secret country of the past where they do things differently from that of our own childhood. Better yet if they come from the mind of a poet who understands brevity. This enchantingly elliptical fiction debut by British-domiciled Polish poet Wioletta Greg sparkles with a gem-like quality. Thanks to Eliza Marciniak’s crisp translation, it brings freshness even to the crowded genre of the novella-sized bildungsroman, and can be devoured alongside the best coming-of-age translations of recent years…

Wioletta Greg, originally Wioletta Grzegorzewska, is a Polish author and poet. Born in 1974 in Koziegłowy, Poland, she currently lives on the Isle of Wight with her husband Szymon Grzegorzewski, with whom she ran a small publishing house called Bulion.  In 2015, Grzegorzewska’s poetry book Finite Formulae and Theories of Chance, published under the name Wioletta Greg and translated into English by Marek Kazmierski, was shortlisted for the Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, one of the most important poetry prizes in the world. Grzegorzewska’s great success in Poland was the book Guguły, nominated to Nike and Gdynia awards. 

The NYT: A Dissident Book Smuggled From North Korea Finds a Global Audience

A sidewalk scene in Pyongyang, North Korea./Credit David Guttenfelder/Associated Press

A sidewalk scene in Pyongyang, North Korea./Credit David Guttenfelder/Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — It was a dog-eared manuscript, 743 pages bound in string. But for Do Hee-youn, an activist campaigning for human rights in North Korea, it was nothing less than stunning.

In 2013, Mr. Do got hold of what he believed was the first manuscript by a living dissident writer in North Korea that had been smuggled out. Written in meticulous longhand on the coarse brown manuscript paper used in North Korea, the book — a collection of seven short stories — was a fierce indictment of life in the totalitarian North. The author wrote of living “like a machine that talked, a yoked human.”

Thanks to Mr. Do’s efforts, the book, “The Accusation,” written under the pseudonym Bandi (“Firefly” in Korean), has found audiences around the world. It has been translated into 18 languages and published in 20 countries. Translated by Deborah Smith into English and published by Grove Press, “The Accusation: Forbidden Stories From Inside North Korea” hit the United States market this month.

“This is the debut of ‘North Korea’s Solzhenitsyn,’” said Kim Kwang-jin, a defector and researcher at the government-funded Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul, the South Korean capital, comparing Bandi to the Russian novelist and Nobel laureate whose writing helped raise global awareness of the gulag forced labor camps of the old Soviet Union. The Guardian wrote, “In its scope and courage, ‘The Accusation’ is an act of great love.”

You can view the rest of the article in the Books section of The New York Times.

Bandi featured in Emerald Street

Bandi was featured in the
FOUR BOOKS TO GET AN INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE 
From 1980s Nigeria to forbidden stories from North Korea

1. The Accusation

By Bandi (£12.99, Serpent’s Tail). Bandi is the Korean word for firefly, and the pseudonym of the writer behind this remarkable collection of stories smuggled out from Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s totalitarian regimes. Revealing the terrible truth of living in a country where any freedoms are curtailed, where famine and brutality are rife, but where human belief and hope can survive any odds, this is a defining read for 2017.

via Emerald Street *

A SHORT STORY SMUGGLED OUT OF NORTH KOREA

Literary Hub

Literary Hub

FROM BANDI'S (AKA 'FIREFLY') NEWLY TRANSLATED COLLECTION OF FICTION

*Article via Literary Hub*

Bandi was born in 1950. He followed his parents to China to take refuge there during the Korean War. He spent his youth in China, before returning to North Korea, where he became affiliated with the Chosun Writers’ League Central Committee. Having always shown a predisposition toward literature, Bandi came to prominence in the 1970s, as his work was published in North Korean magazines.

The focus of Bandi’s writing changed forever after the deaths of many people close to him during the so-called Arduous March, which began with the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994. The experiences of this time, including seeing many North Koreans leave their homeland just in order to survive, made him resolve to share with the outside world a true likeness of North Korean society as he himself saw it. Though life in North Korea was lived behind an iron curtain, Bandi held fast to the belief that his writing would have its day, and had produced a considerable body of work by the time a relative living in Hamheung province came in secret to see him and disclosed her decision to try to escape from the country by crossing over to China. Bandi was aware that he could not try to escape himself, for he had a wife and children, but three days later, when his relative left, he gave her the manuscript he had in his possession.

The relative who accepted the task of smuggling out the manuscript explained to him that, as there was no guarantee she herself would be able to get away safely, she would prepare her escape route and then return to collect it. Making this promise, she left.

Though disheartened, Bandi had no other option. Several months later, an unfamiliar youth came to his house and, without saying a word, handed him a letter wrapped in a plastic bag. The content of the letter was as follows:

It’s Myung-ok. I’m sorry this is late. I’ve come to a convenient place now. The one who helped me make it here safely will send someone to you. With my letter. When you get it, please give them the item which you gave to me last time. You can trust them. Since it’s something that only you and I know about, there were two items which you gave to me that time, you know. Since you will also have to try living in a good world one time, when you think of the family you left behind you will shed only tears. Such a day will surely come. Dear one, you and I will surely meet again . . .

In the meantime, stay well.

Myung-ok.

Bandi hesitated for a moment before fetching the manuscript from out of the small cupboard in which he had hidden it and handing it over to the young man, putting his trust in the letter. The young man accepted the package and immediately left the house. The manuscript that had been in Bandi’s possession was now going to South Korea, to a land of freedom and hope.

And now The Accusation is going out into the world to illuminate the darkness which shrouds North Korea, just like a beautiful firefly, the pen name this writer chose for himself.

–Do Hee-yun
Representative of the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees

 

 

City of Specters
(Trans. Deborah Smith)

The day before the National Day celebrations, Pyongyang was decked out in all its finery. The past three months of tireless preparation had paid off in spectacular fashion.

When the subway train pulled into Pungnyeon station, Han Gyeong-hee only just managed to jump on, shoulder her way through to the back of the carriage, and grab the last available space. Underground, it was every bit as thronged with people as the streets on the surface. At each station, a tide of people surged into the carriage: soldiers, university students, middle-school pupils, young farmers hefting models for the ceremony, ordinary citizens bearing armfuls of flowers, Boy Scout leaders gripping cudgels. Their appearance, and particularly the things they were carrying, showed that they were on their way to the rehearsal for tomorrow’s mass games, in which a million people would take part.

As more and more people piled on, Gyeong-hee was forced to wriggle her sturdy frame from side to side to keep herself from being mercilessly squeezed. Still, she kept her eyes on her son the whole time. The two-year-old boy was practically glued to her, sandwiched between her ample chest and her office bag. He seemed to cling ever closer to his mother, his wide eyes darting nervously around. The air in the carriage, a stifling fug of heat and noise that had worsened once the train pulled out of the station, seemed to cool off just a little, and Gyeong-hee could breathe a little more freely. As she did, she was able to hear again the voice of the nursery governess, ringing out clear above the babble of conversation and the train’s clattering motion. In the nursery at the end of the working day, seeing each child safely into the arms of a parent, the governess had singled Gyeong-hee out for one of her lengthy spiels.

“Ah, Comrade Manager! I wonder, have you been scaring your son with stories of the Eobi, the fearsome creature who stuffs disobedient children into his sack and tosses them down a well? I ask because he was just having a nap earlier—your son, of course, not the Eobi, haha—when all of a sudden he jerked awake, covered in sweat and screaming as if he would burst. ‘Eobi, Eobi!’ Extraordinary to think someone like you could have produced such a delicate constitution.”

“You’re right—he must get it from his father’s side. If he was anything like me it’d take more than a fairy tale to frighten him!”

Gyeong-hee forced a laugh. Though something of a celebrity when compared with the other mothers—manager of a marine products shop at the age of thirty-six, with a forceful personality that matched her strapping frame—she couldn’t help being unsettled by the mention of Eobi. Of course, the governess had likely been speaking in innocence, mildly annoyed at having to deal with such a sensitive child and wondering how to prevent similar outbursts in the future. But Gyeong-hee wasn’t the type to take such comments at face value. Has the governess picked up on something? she wondered. Why else would she ask about the Eobi, of all things? How much does she know? It was a futile train of thought, and she knew it. She berated herself for such spineless fretting.

And yet, after she’d got off at Seungri station and made her way back up to street level, the same thoughts began to crowd back in. Only when she arrived at Kim Il-sung Square, where an army drill was taking place, did a new realization come to her, one that trumped all her previous worries. Over the sea of heads and fists raised in salute, the window of her apartment was clearly visible, on the fifth floor of their building. All she had to do was cross the square to find herself at home. Today, though, this wasn’t an option. Not because of the drill, but because entering the square would bring her son—already alarmed by the thousand-strong cries of “Long live Kim Il-sung! Long live North Korea!”—face-to-face with the terrifying Eobi. “This kid!” Gyeong-hee muttered under her breath, barely aware that she was speaking. “A wet rag just like his dad . . .”

Abandoning her usual route home, Gyeong-hee turned instead to a nearby shop which specialized in children’s clothes. Her son really was the spitting image of his father, with a body as feeble as his mind. What else but a congenital weakness could account for a child’s throwing a fit at the sight of a mere picture! If it hadn’t been for her husband, Gyeong-hee would have gone to the hospital days ago and demanded some kind of treatment. But no, it had to be kept hushed up. So the child was still a baby—what did that matter?

He was the son of a supervisor in the propaganda department, and having a tantrum at the sight of Marx’s portrait had serious implications. And besides, now that the preparations for National Day were coming to a head, people were at such a level of excitement they’d be liable to mistake a dropped spoon for a grenade. The event itself would be followed by a strict review, and woe betide any participant who had demonstrated less than revolutionary fervor. No, it wouldn’t do to step out of line just now. There were only a few days left, after all—they just needed to keep their heads down.

This was all Gyeong-hee’s husband had to offer by way of a remedy.

The child she was carrying seemed to grow twice as heavy, and the sky, whose clear blue had been such a welcome contrast to the gray clouds of the past few days, began to stir with an unseasonal southerly wind. As they turned out of the alley where the clothes shop was situated, the contrast could not have been greater: from a lonely place where gusts of wind pursued fallen leaves and scraps of plastic lay idle in the gutter, to the vast expanse of the central road.

There, where the mass celebrations would soon be taking place, the street looked like some fierce wild beast, shaking its mane and roaring. Bristling with posters and placards, strong sharp lines of red writing that made the eye wince to look at them; lined on both sides with innumerable flags, their fabric snapping taut in the wind; pierced by shrill whistles, underlining each new announcement or command; rent down the middle by a dark blue broadcast car, blaring slogans through its loudspeaker, again and again so that the whole street rang with them. Punctuated every so often by a plane looming low in the city’s skies, rising from takeoff or coming onto land; even their engines seemed to explode into an unprecedented roar, agitating the figures who moved below, causing them unconsciously to quicken their step.

As soon as Gyeong-hee arrived home, she spread her son’s toys out over the floor.

“Look, my little Myeong-shik, don’t these look fun? How about a little playtime? Beep-beep, ring-ring . . .”

Leaving him to his own devices, Gyeong-hee moved quickly to the windows and drew the curtains she’d put up. Their apartment was at the very front of the block, with one window facing south and another west. The south-facing window looked out onto the portrait of Karl Marx hung on the wall of the military department building, while the west-facing window framed a similar portrait of Kim Il-sung, hung near the VIP balcony of the Grand People’s Study House. Gyeong-hee had to keep Myeong-shik from seeing those portraits.

But the white nylon under-curtain, provided as standard and kept drawn during the day, wasn’t there to block the portraits out, and if anything the hazy shapes created by the curtain’s thin gauze were even more frightening than the solid reality. Myeong-shik’s initial terror had come from a face-to-face encounter with Marx’s portrait, and with his stressed mind and active imagination, the picture loomed larger by the day.

It was getting on toward evening the previous Saturday when it had first happened. A citizens’ rally was taking place in Kim Il-sung Square, with the aim of encouraging people to be ever more energetic in preparing for the celebrations. Everyone was pushed for time, so the rally had been organized at an hour when most workers would normally be heading home for the day. Myeong-shik had had a cold, and as Gyeong-hee, reluctant to leave him in that state, couldn’t very well absent herself from the rally, in the end she’d strapped him to her back and gone into the square. Myeong-shik was prone to colds, seemingly a product of his weak constitution, but this was something different—his tiny body was burning hot against her back, telling Gyeong-hee that his fever wasn’t to be dismissed as a mere sniffle.

Her group had been at the head of the square’s far-left column, directly beneath the glowering gaze of Karl Marx. In the haze of dusk, before the square’s electric lighting was switched on, that reddish-black face with its great swath of hair would have sent shivers down the spine of even the most stolid Party cadre. Perhaps it was that which accounted for Gyeong-hee’s unwonted recollection—a line from the first passage of The Communist Manifesto, which she’d read at some point during college.

“A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism.”

Had Marx inadvertently been writing his autobiography? The phrase was a mysteriously fitting description of how his portrait had appeared just then: closer in form to some spectral presence than an actual human being, plucked from some ghastly legend. Gyeong-hee’s practical mind would never have normally entertained such speculations, but she was already anxious about Myeong-shik, worrying that he might somehow disturb the rally.

These fears had soon proved to be well founded; his nerves already set on edge by the mass of people around him, when the opening address boomed from the loudspeaker the boy was so startled that his vague snuffling transformed into harsh, desperate sobs. Gyeong-hee was sure she could hear people scolding her for bringing a bawling child to such an important rally, hissing at her to shut him up. She’d hastily swung him around to her front and rocked him gently in her arms, making soothing noises as loudly as she dared. But the boy just kept on crying.

Glancing around her, as a last resort she’d brought her face close to his. “Eobi! Eobi! The scary Eobi will get Myeong-shik if he’s bad,” she muttered. Still no luck. And then an idea struck her. This time, she held the boy up so that his gaze would fall directly on the portrait of Marx, muttering “Eobi!” in his ear all the while.

Myeong-shik had abruptly swallowed his sobs, and Gyeong-hee let out a sigh of relief. But the very next moment, the little lump of fire in her arms, who was pressing his face into her chest as though trying to tunnel inside her, became racked with the most extraordinary convulsions.

“Myeong-shik, Myeong-shik, no! This child . . .”

Gyeong-hee had been appalled. The corners of his mouth were flecked with foam, and his eyes were glassy and unfocused. Had a doctor happened to be at hand, the incident might well have ended in disaster. In the past week, Myeong-shik had had similar fits on two other occasions, terrified by the Eobi as seen through the apartment window. These convulsions could have been easily prevented if Gyeong-hee had been more scrupulous in her care—she’d drawn the double curtains only over the west-facing window, when she should have known to cover both. Myeong-shik was shaken from his senses by that initial terror; in his eyes the portrait of Kim Il-sung had worn the countenance of the menacing Eobi.

Now, though she had ensured that both sets of curtains were fully closed, Gyeong-hee was far from reassured as she watched her son find what little amusement he could in his toys. At any moment, she was expecting to hear the words “Fifth floor, apartment No. 3!” rapped out from the street below, in the chilling voice of the local Party secretary. If it happened, it would be the third time, and this time, she knew, he would not be fobbed off with an excuse and an apology.

“Fifth floor, apartment No. 3!” Had she imagined it?

“Fifth floor No. 3!”

“Ah, yes.” Even after she admitted to herself that the voice was real, it took Gyeong-hee a few moments before she was able to get the words out, and her casual tone sounded forced in her ears.

“Please come down.”

So this is it. . .  Gyeong-hee lifted Myeong-shik up and carried him out of the apartment, descending the stairs with heavy feet.

“Again, Comrade Manager? After everything I’ve told you?”

Though well past forty, the local secretary’s lips still bore the flush of youth, and her white-framed glasses contained no prescription. Her voice, on the other hand, was cold and colorless.

“The thing is, Comrade Secretary–”

“That’s enough. Do I really have to spell it out for you a third time?” This appeared to be a rhetorical question, as the woman launched straight into her usual speech before Gyeong-hee had the chance to question its necessity. “Comrade Manager, do you have something against the white nylon undercurtain with which the Party has been good enough to provide you? Provided, indeed, as a special consideration for the houses in our street, which have the honor of being at the city’s heart, a place where many foreigners will soon be visiting to see the celebrations. Do you perhaps resent the fact that they were not donated free of charge?”

“That’s not it, it’s just—”

“Look. Every other house has those same curtains, so the street can look neat and uniform. Which it would, if it your apartment wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb!”

Jabbing a rigid finger in the direction of the offending curtains, the secretary scowled first at them and then at Gyeong-hee herself.

“Well, as I said, it isn’t that I–” Once again, Gyeong-hee found herself interrupted.

“It’s the same story every time. Why do you persist with this obstinacy, Comrade Manager? You might throw your weight around in your job, but collective life is another matter!”

“You go too far. . .”

“Too far?” the secretary thundered, though Gyeong-hee’s protest had been couched in the mildest terms. She began to flip through the red notebook she’d had tucked under her arm. “Given your family’s loyalty to the Party, I’ll tell you frankly how things stand. I received a report, dated the sixth of September. ‘In apartment 3 on the fifth floor of Building 5, every day from around six in the evening until the next morning, blue double curtains are drawn in both windows. I find this extremely suspicious. It could be some kind of secret code, to communicate with spies.’” Clapping the notebook briskly shut, the secretary glanced sharply up at Gyeong-hee. “Such a report will have reached other ears than mine, Comrade Manager. And you dare to tell me that I’m the one who is going too far?”

Gyeong-hee’s eyes were wide with shock—at first. Almost immediately, she felt something bubbling up inside her, moving through her body with real heat and substance. Those who have boldness—who are undaunted, even, in their endurance—know how to hold themselves in check when they have to. But there comes a point when that endurance reaches its limit, and when it does, the full force of their character will manifest with double intensity.

“‘A secret code? Spies?’” Gyeong-hee’s laughter finally burst forth, a hearty guffaw that she could not control. She laughed so long and so loud that Myeong-shik whimpered in alarm, and the secretary began to look somewhat cowed. “Okay,” Gyeong-hee said, still chuckling to herself, “I’ll tell you.” As she drew herself up to her full height, and shifted Myeong-shik higher in her arms, her imposing stature was matched once again by a dignified, commanding air. The laughter had acted as a coarse sieve, straining out her niggling concerns until all that was left was sheer brazen nerve. What could she possibly have to fear?

Even when she trotted off to school as a child, with her bowl cut and satchel, the red armband awarded to those whose character and comportment marked them out for a glitter- ing career in the Party was a near-permanent fixture of her uniform, and it stayed on her arm through to her college days. After graduating and securing an enviable position, she steadily maintained her rank as a Party cadre and was entrusted with ever-greater responsibilities. Having a father who was martyred in the Korean War meant her standing was sufficiently secure to not be threatened by the minor slip-ups that were inevitable now and then.

Her husband, though the graduate of a distinguished revolutionary academy, lacked her confident, decisive outlook. Congenital timidity was the only reason to quail before the business of a child’s nervous disposition! So their son found Marx’s portrait frightening; did it follow that his parents opposed the man’s ideology?

“After all,” she continued, her voice made husky by a rumble of amusement, “can the full story be worse than what you think, that I should be denounced as a spy?” Beginning with the incident during the rally, Gyeong-hee rattled through the whole history of Myeong-shik’s condition, ending with the business of the double curtains.

The secretary frowned.

“But why cover the window on this side, too? Marx’s portrait isn’t visible from there.”

“No, but the Great Leader’s is.” “So?”

“You know the saying: The child who fears turtles will flinch at a manhole cover.”

“What? Your son is frightened by the portrait of our Great Leader?” The secretary’s gaze seemed to sharpen suddenly behind her glasses, but Gyeong-hee was past being deterred by such things.

“In any case,” she finished, “now that I’ve explained everything, I’d appreciate your understanding. I can’t shut my child up in a cupboard, or watch him every minute of the day, so what else am I to do? But tomorrow, during the ceremony, I promise I’ll keep the curtains open.”

“That is not acceptable,” the secretary insisted, her clipped tone rising as she delivered her final remarks. “This isn’t some petty quarrel over home furnishings. The review due to take place after the ceremony is intended to weed out any deviance from Party ideology—you are aware of this, Comrade Manager? I’ve nothing more to say.”

By the time Gyeong-hee had come up with a response, the secretary had vanished around the corner of the street, like a black hawk flying away with its prey.

Less than two hours later, both sets of double curtains were taken down in apartment No. 3 on the fifth floor of Building 5, though not by Gyeong-hee herself.

She was in the kitchen getting dinner ready, with a great banging of pots and pans and a slamming of cupboard doors, remembering the contempt that had laced the secretary’s words. So when her husband entered the apartment, she didn’t even realize it—he wasn’t due home for another hour. “Why have you drawn the double curtains?” Startled, Gyeong-hee looked up to find her husband standing there in the kitchen doorway, still clutching the handle of the door, as though reluctant to commit himself to entering. His eyebrows, two vivid black slashes that contrasted with his pallid complexion, curved up toward the middle of his forehead like the character for the number eight. “Well? Why have you drawn them again?”

Three vertical furrows appeared in Gyeong-hee’s forehead as her hand paused in chopping the aubergine, producing the character for “stream” to match her husband’s “eight.”

“Answer me!”

Watching her husband dash over to both sets of windows and tear down the double curtains, Gyeong-hee left what she was doing and came out of the kitchen, picking up Myeong-shik from where he’d been playing on the floor.

The curtains dealt with, Gyeong-hee’s husband turned back to her.

“I’ve told you time and time again to get rid of those damned curtains. As far as I can see, it just goes in one ear and out the other. If you were still a new bride fresh from the provinces then perhaps you’d have an excuse, but you’ve had more than enough time to get to know Pyongyang by now. How can you still not understand the way things work in this city?”

Suddenly deflated, he slumped down in his usual spot near the wall, still staring at Gyeong-hee in apparent disbelief. “Wasn’t I telling you only yesterday about the ‘Rabbit with Three Burrows’? Like the rabbit who keeps three burrows to hurry into as needed, you can never be too careful. That’s the moral of the story. Always stamp on a stone bridge before crossing, to check that it will bear your weight. Those are the rules for living in Pyongyang. So what on earth possessed you, today of all days?”

When no answer was forthcoming, Gyeong-hee’s husband fished his cigarettes out of his pocket, stuck one between his lips, and lit it. He drew on it several times in quick succession, with a noisy smacking of his lips, released a lungful of smoke as a long sigh, and roused himself, somewhat revived. “What’s the most important theory in all of Marx’s thought?” he asked, raising his arm to point to the man himself. “Oh! First you talk about how long it’s been since I was a new bride, and now you expect me to go back to the classroom?”

“The dictatorship of the proletariat. To which the theory of capital and the construction of scientific communism are both related, of course, but secondary. If capital is the weapon of capitalism, the weapon of socialism, which governs all our lives here, is the proletarian dictatorship. A dictatorship of the people! Yes, the people of this city understand all too well the reality of that idea. That’s why they live according to the principles of the ‘Rabbit with Three Burrows.’ But you go about without a care in the world, thinking your martyred father puts you beyond reproach. What do you think that will be worth, the day you slip up and find the people against you? You think the Eobi is just a fairy tale?”

His eyes were burning with passion. When had her meek and mild husband ever shown such fervor before? But Gyeong-hee was too impatient to waste time wondering about this change.

“That’s enough!” she snapped as soon as she had the chance. “I don’t know what went wrong at work that’s put you in this mood, but I haven’t the time to stand here and be lectured at.”

“For goodness’ sake, how can you be so naïve?” Her husband stamped his foot in frustration. “‘A bad day at work’? I’ve just come from the department of information!”

“The department of information?” Blanching, Gyeong-hee narrowed her eyes and studied her husband more closely. Then she laughed, relieved, as it all became plain. “Ah! I get it. Because of the ‘secret code,’ right?” She laughed again.

“What? You were called there too?”

“No, but our street secretary was just here, telling me all about this report that had been filed against us. She did hint that it might have gone higher up.”

“And what did you tell her? About the reason for the curtains?”

“The truth, of course. You think that’s worse than being accused of spying? A ‘secret code’—ha!”

“There’s nothing to laugh about, I tell you! I tried to explain that Myeong-shik must have inherited my feeble con- stitution, that that’s why he has this condition, and do you know what the department chief said?”

“No, what?”

“That our physical constitution isn’t all we inherit—that our mind-set comes from our parents too.”

“He really said that?”

“Yes! And what would it say about you or me, if we’d passed on to our son a fear of the Great Leader’s portrait? Well?”

“But that’s ridiculous. . .”

“Is it? It’s as simple as two times two.”

Outside the window, something glittered like the flash of a knife, followed by an almighty clang, as though a metal barrel were crashing down all five flights of their building’s stairs. The wind slammed their front door shut, which Gyeong-hee’s husband had left open in his haste; no sooner had the echo died away than it was replaced by the gentle drumming of rain against the windowpane.

The rain carried on late into the night, repeatedly dropping to a murmur only to return to a fresh crescendo. Myeong-shik’s sleep was so fitful it barely warranted the name, and Gyeong-hee had to sit by him all through the night, soothing each bout of tears.

It was the night before National Day, a day of celebration which the entire city had been anticipating for months, and Gyeong-hee was so exhausted that she nodded off time after time as she sat by her son. Each time the rain slackened, the electric lanterns festooning the streets flickered back on again, their light causing multicolored flowers to bloom on the windowpanes. Had it been a different holiday, the Lunar New Year or Harvest Festival, the sight would have lightened Gyeong-hee’s spirits, but these lights just seemed to mock her. As she’d drop off, then startle herself awake again, her hand would automatically feel for Myeong-shik. But then her head would resume its jerky nodding, like a pestle pounding rice flour.

The surge of the rain, the sighing of the wind, the night lying otherwise silent in the streets—eventually, all these disjointed elements came together to form a single dissonant chord, unfurling an alien cityscape in Gyeong-hee’s exhausted mind. A drawn-out cry blew in from somewhere, reverberating throughout the sleeping city. “Eo-bi.”

“What are you doing hanging around when you should be asleep at home? Planning to spoil tomorrow’s celebrations?”

But what was this? A monstrous, hairy figure straddling two of the tallest apartment buildings, a foot on each roof? It was! None other than the Eobi himself!

So horrified that her wits deserted her, Gyeong-hee turned and ran for her life. But the tense little faces peering out of each window, as densely as the cells in a hive, scrutinizing the movements in the street below, belonged not to people but to rabbits! They were the rabbits from the fable, the one her husband had learned by heart as a child. But how had Gyeong-hee become trapped inside it?

Frantically scanning her surroundings—she was back in her apartment now, but the nightmare was ongoing—she spotted another of the rabbits lying stretched out on the bed over there, a particularly pathetic-looking specimen. Its mouth formed a pitiful O of surprise, but it was fast asleep and snoring thunderously. It must have been the Eobi’s harrying roar that had left it so drained! But what was that row of small white teeth she glimpsed inside its gaping mouth? Why, it wasn’t a rabbit at all—it was her husband!

“Ma-ma!”

“Oh, oh! Sleep, sleep, Myeong-shik. . .”

Even in the grip of her trance, Gyeong-hee had been mechanically going through the motions of soothing the restless

Myeong-shik, but now her movements began to slacken again, little by little. She slipped into that same sleep in which, in spite of the howling wind, the exhausted city was readying itself.

As soon as the next day dawned, people rushed to their windows to peer anxiously upward. Young or old, man or woman, there couldn’t have been a single person in the whole city who wasn’t examining the sky, trying to second-guess the weather. The signs were far from promising—the sky was covering itself with ink-black clouds, threatening an escalation in the already steady rain.

Around six o’clock in the morning, though, it appeared that this was a false alarm—the rain petered out, and the sky showed its face as though nothing had ever happened. In the barracks, schools, and factories, the hundred thousand ceremony participants began to stir themselves, all according to plan.

But not even 30 minutes had gone by before the sky put on another bombastic display. This time the rain went well beyond a mere shower, pouring down in great, vigorous sheets, enough to throw the whole city into turmoil. Sewers overflowed into seething gutters, and people sought refuge anywhere they could—in subways and apartment buildings, in underground stations and bus stop shelters, beneath the awnings of public buildings or the lintels of front doors—watching the raging torrent with dismay.

Eight o’clock went by, then nine o’clock. . . Only when the clock hand showed a scant 45 minutes remaining before the ceremony’s scheduled start time of ten o’clock did the rain abruptly cease, as though the sky were giving its reluctant permission for everything to go ahead as planned. A rainbow strung itself between Yanggak Isle and Moran Peak, like a banner that might have read “Impossible to Hold Ceremony at Scheduled Time.” Patches of clear blue began to show through, and all the signs pointed to a day of glorious sunshine.

Now the ceremony would be able to go ahead as planned, with the cleanly washed city as a stylish backdrop—if the hundred thousand people scattered throughout the city center could manage to converge on Kim Il-sung Square within the next 45 minutes. But that would have been like expecting new leaves to sprout from withered trees. In place of the rain, the sky began to crackle with innumerable radio broadcasts, including transmissions from the chief broadcasting offices of certain Western countries. “North Korean National Day celebrations, three months in the planning, postponed due to torrential rain!” Thus the foreigners displayed their ignorance of Pyongyang.

“Citizens, your attention. The ceremony will proceed as planned. All participants must, without exception, present themselves at their designated assembly point.”

This broadcast on radio channel 3 shrilled its message into the city’s collective eardrum. From the subways and apartment buildings, underground stations and bus stop shelters, beneath the awnings of public buildings or the lintels of front doors, people dashed out like bullets fired from a gun. Only Gyeong-hee remained where she was, alone but for Myeong-shik in her hushed apartment. She heard the broadcast along with everybody else, understood the emphasis implicit in the words “without exception,” but she knew she was exempt from her unit’s roll call—she had a sick child to take care of. At least her apartment’s enviable location meant she’d have a prime view of the ceremony. Moving to the window, she looked out over the vast expanse of the square—still deserted, despite the repeated broadcasts, and with only thirty-five minutes left on the clock.

Thirty minutes, twenty-five . . .

And then a miracle began to unfold. One by one, columns began to form in the square, neatly divided like blocks of tofu. Each column accumulated new blocks in rapid succession, as though the phrase “without exception” were a long steel spit pushing through the city, skewering people in bunches and delivering them promptly to the square. Eventually, with only five minutes to go, the entire square was a sea of color, with columns stretching out on both sides of Department Store 1, passing in front of the Children’s Palace, and continuing all the way to the Yangcheon crossroads.

Senior state functionaries began to make their way out onto the VIP platform. A hushed silence descended on the square, which quivered with palpitations like the sea after a storm has just subsided.

“Informing the citizens. We have created a miracle here today, which has made the people of the world shudder with awe. One hundred thousand citizens have assembled here in Kim Il-sung Square. One hundred thousand citizens within forty-five minutes . . .”

Unbeknownst to herself, Gyeong-hee pressed her hands together in front of her chest at this new broadcast from radio channel 3. For some reason, her heart began to shudder.

“Shudder”! Yes, that was the exact word for it. What had just taken place in front of Gyeong-hee’s eyes was a spectacle inducing the awe of terror rather than the wonder felt in witnessing a miracle. 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?

As it turned out, Gyeong-hee did not have to wait long for an answer.

The post-ceremony review went on for a week in various cities throughout the country. At each unit’s review hall, the Party secretary’s sharp tone was punctuated by a strike of the hand on the rostrum. Those on the receiving end of this tongue-lashing would stand with their heads bowed, pressing their lips together to swallow stinging tears and stifle their cries of despair.

Anything deemed to have marred the celebrations, even down to a so-called lack of fervor, was exhaustively accounted for. The most severe punishment tended to be expulsion from the capital—“banishment” was the official term. This was effected with ruthless efficiency. The banished were not even permitted to pack their own belongings. Once the verdict had been handed down—“Comrade, your behavior at the time of the celebrations has been judged as unacceptable; according to Party regulations, your household will be relocated to the countryside”—the punishment was discharged immediately. Under the careful scrutiny of a representative from the department of information, several officials arrived with straw bags and knotted rice sacks, into which belongings were packed so swiftly that the offenders never had time to react. Things were arranged so as to leave as little time as possible before the train bound for their new home departed. The representative stayed by the offenders’ side the whole time, in the truck to the station and then onto the train, so deeply concerned to see them to their destination—which was so far from Pyongyang in every sense that it seemed an alien land—that he never once let them out of his sight.

All of which was exactly what happened to Gyeong-hee and her family. The verdict was just as her husband had predicted: “Neglecting to educate their son in the proper revolutionary principles, with a negative effect on the National Day ceremony; further, making coarse remarks about the portrait of Karl Marx, the father of communism, and comparing the portrait of our Great Leader to a manhole cover. The accused are therefore guilty of jeopardizing the preservation of our Party’s ideology. . .”

There were four passengers in the truck, which left close to midnight, the icy chill of mid-September biting down to the bone: Han Gyeong-hee, her husband Park Sung-il and son Park Myeong-shik, plus the representative from the department of information, crouching in the cargo space among the family’s belongings. The seat next to the driver was free, but the representative, ever solicitous of his charges, had elected to stay next to the family.

The baby cried and cried. His exhausted, monotonous sobs, and the hemp hood that had been tied under Gyeong-hee’s chin, created a vivid picture of the family’s suffering. Her husband chain-smoked throughout the journey, and when a spark from his pipe landed on one of the bundles of clothes, burning a small hole through the fabric, no one moved to brush it off.

Before he left, the driver had to bend over the engine, coaxing the sputtering machine into life. Even that brief space of time was enough for a multitude of thoughts to come piling into Gyeong-hee’s mind. They popped up one after another, a bewildering procession of disjointed fragments. There were the potsherds she’d used to serve up a meal of sand, when she was still young enough to play at keeping house, and the time she’d scrapped with the neighbor’s son, who’d dared to call her a tomboy. Or that winter vacation in her first year of college, when she arrived home after taking the night train alone across the country, a distance of some thirty ri. “Look at this girl!” her grandmother had exclaimed. “Does she know no fear? She must be possessed by the spirit of some general!” And it was true—with a martyred father to give strength to her own inherent daring, up until now Gyeong-hee truly had lived in ignorance of what it was to fear.

Yet now fear seemed to govern her entire existence.

The door to the driver’s cab banged shut and the engine roared into life. The sound scattered Gyeong-hee’s thoughts, and her field of vision narrowed to take in only the window to her side, brightly lit as though someone were seeing them off. Gyeong-hee shifted and coughed as the vehicle jerked forward, trying to dislodge the column of water vapor that seemed to burn behind her breastbone.

Was it the knife-sharp glance of the representative that made her feel that burning sensation inside her? Or the decorative lanterns strung from the roof of the state department building, which seemed to command her to marshal her thoughts along the proper channel? Her blank gaze shifted, and the square’s two portraits loomed into view: Karl Marx, his features buried in a bristling sea of beard; and Kim Il-sung, his lips set in a stern, disapproving line. Two red “specters” bellowing at Gyeong-hee: “Stop this useless brooding, Comrade! You dare to think your punishment unjust? When you’re given an order you follow it, without exception. Without exception, do you hear? Don’t you know to whom this city belongs?”

Those menacing, pitiless specters kept Gyeong-hee’s grief inside her and crushed any hope of a reprieve.

Her limbs began to tremble, and not only because of the September chill. Fear swelled inside her—fear, something which had to be instilled in you from birth if you were to survive life in this country. Now, at last, she had the answer to the riddle, understood the force that had moved a hundred thousand people like puppets on a string. If her husband were to quiz her now on Marx’s most significant theory, how much more seriously, rigorously, confidently she could have answered.

The truck raced on to the station. On both sides of the road, the clusters of apartment windows mysteriously recalled to her her dream from the night before National Day: the “Rabbit with Three Burrows”. . .  Though it was close to midnight, Gyeong-hee sensed hundreds of figures hovering at those windows, peering out like rabbits from their burrows, eyes narrowed in accusation. If the Eobi were to give the order, the figures said, they would flock to the square in even less time than before, without exception!

–April 1993

First fiction out of North Korea describes ‘a den of evil magic’

BRIAN HUGHES/TORONTO STAR ILLUSTRATION

BRIAN HUGHES/TORONTO STAR ILLUSTRATION

Author had to use pseudonym while still living under regime

  • Toronto Star
  • 4 Mar 2017
  • Alex Good is a frequent contributor to these pages. ALEX GOOD SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Fiction in the English-speaking world is mostly post-political, perhaps recognizing that it can’t compete with the spectacle of a reality-TV star as president of the United States, and perhaps just because there are so few meaningful differences between the major parties in our democracies.

We have novels that address individual political issues, but few books that are interested in exploring the nature and operation of government and the role of the state in our lives.

The fact that The Accusation is the first work of fiction to be smuggled out of North Korea, and had to be published under a pseudonym (“Bandi” means “firefly”) because the writer still lives there, gives some indication of just how different, and dangerous, a world North Korea is, even beyond headline-gathering incidents such as the provocative firing of missiles or foreign assassinations.

The Accusation takes us across a deep cultural and political border. Even the texture of the writing, which has been translated by Deborah Smith — a British translator of Korean fiction who was a co-winner of the Man Booker International Prize last year — gives us a chilly sense of the Cold War era.

Bandi is a realistic writer, but from a 21st century Western perspective it may seem like he’s describing some dark fantasy set in Mordor, or a futuristic dystopia.

The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, constitute a passionate J’accuse: a political polemic written against North Korea’s communist dictatorship, headed at the time by the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung (grandfather of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Un).

The picture Bandi draws is unrelievedly grim. His stories have been compared to Solzhenitsyn’s revelation of life in the Gulag system, with the main difference being that in The Accusation all of North Korea has been turned into a giant prison labour camp.

Fear has to be instilled at birth if one is going to survive (a process we see happening in the most disturbing story, “City of Specters”).

It is a state choked by tyranny, “a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter,” “a barren desert, a place where life withers and dies!”

As you can tell from this, the political message is not subtle. The stories make it painfully clear how awful life in North Korea is, with grinding poverty and an economy that at times seems little advanced from the Stone Age. Key themes are the family divided against itself, a world turned upside down and false appearance (or propaganda) vs. reality.

The word “totalitarian” gets thrown around a lot these days, which makes it worth seeing what living under such a regime looks like from the inside.

The essential point is that the party is everywhere, controlling every aspect of the lives of the people we meet, mainly through the operation of an army of minor officials that make up a petty and at times even sadistic bureaucracy. These functionaries are sinister, alien figures, almost impossible for a Western audience to understand. We certainly have our own time-serving bureaucrats and corporate drones, but the party officials in these stories are totally dehumanized creatures of the state. These are people who have lost their souls.

Big Brother is firmly in charge, and black is white, light is dark. This disjunction between truth and lie is hammered home again and again, beginning with a prefatory poem where Bandi talks of communism’s promised “world of light” and how it has resulted in North Korea’s “truly fathomless darkness, black as a moonless night at the year’s end.”

In case you miss the point, which won’t be easy, each story usually winds up with a trumpet blast of climactic rhetoric aimed at the cruelty of the regime and the monstrous hypocrisy of its ideology.

There’s a famous satellite photograph of the Korean Peninsula at night that shows North Korea as an empty gap sandwiched between a brightly lit South Korea below and China above. It’s as though the country is a black hole from which even information cannot escape. The Accusation is an angry book, composed in “pure indignation,” but it shines a necessary light on what remains one of the darkest places on Earth.