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The chambers of laughter

Bandi, an anonymous dissident North Korean writer, risked his life to have his handwritten manuscript leave the country; his short stories look into the soul of the Workers’ Party, its machinations, and discover its dark, demonic heart

The chambers of laughter

In Bandi’s North Korea, accusations cut like maelstroms. They fell trees, and hold the accused in utter contempt. Once accused, speech is throttled, integrity is corrupted, and condemnation follows. There are no second chances. Bandi’s The Accusation, a collection of seven stories, explores the lives of ordinary people tormented by paradoxes and whittled down by totalitarian ideology. Accusations linger in the air, whipping like cruel winter winds. You have betrayed the Party. With this polyphony of accusing voices stomping out freedom, Bandi demolishes Marx’s adage, “A spectre is haunting Europe…”, by revealing how Marx and his demons haunt North Korea.

Bandi, meaning firefly, the nom de plume of an anonymous dissident North Korean writer, risked his life to have his handwritten manuscript leave the country. Most uncensored coverage that escapes North Korea is from defectors, but Bandi is still living and working in North Korea. This give the literature a certain aura. A writer risking his life to have his words read grants him authority.

Throughout the book, we learn about Class One VIP events that paralyse the country, about Family Class 149, and how a person can be generationally persecuted for no other reason than the alleged crimes of their relatives.

Bandi’s situation is extraordinary. As an alleged member of the Chosun Writers’ League Central Committee, North Korea’s state-authorised writers’ association, Bandi must lead a bipolar life. One in which he needs to walk the Party line, transmit its ideology, and another in which he witnesses how that very ideology oppresses. This duality adds great complexity to Bandi’s literary perspective, as he delves into the bifurcation of human existence.

What most clearly holds these stories together is their fatalism. There’s a silent defeatism that hums in the background. Irrespective of what people attempt to do, they cannot overthrow the system. What’s perhaps most despairing is that Bandi’s characters don’t try to either. There is only room for private, quiet victories. Bandi does not try and depict revolutionaries attempting to dismantle North Korea’s one-party socialism, but introduces people who are trying to be good citizens according to State ideology and being defeated by that very ideology. Bandi tells us that these people want to uphold the ideology, that they believe in it, but the State, like some schizophrenic masochist, wants to prevent that, for it doesn’t believe in what it proscribes.

In “Life of Swift Steed”, Seol Yong-su, a decorated coach driver who joined the Communist Party after liberation, is forced to cut down his beloved elm tree in his garden because it runs too close to a military police telephone line. The tree was planted in 1948 to commemorate his joining the Party, and on it were pinned the ideals of a new democratic North Korea. Even during the challenges of war, Yong-su was spurred on by this elm and its promise of abundant harvest. Yong-su received 13 medals for his hard work and valour and it was all possible because of his elm. But even as he is freezing and starving, he refuses to relinquish his ideals. It is only when the military police come to cut down his elm does Yong-su finally react, realising his dreams are built on illusions and he then emits “the sound of a human being torn apart by contradictions”. The accusation that Yong-su did not do enough for his ideals was unfathomable to him, he had been his own whip.

If The Accusation was written outside of North Korea, it would be classified as a dystopic work of fiction. One of the redeeming qualities of a dystopia is that it remains an imagined potentiality. A possibility that can be avoided, subverted, even altered; even inevitable dystopias, ones that occur in the future occur in future-time, and therefore in the present are un-actualised. When a dystopia loses these features it is reality. An escapable one, a reality that diminishes dreams, that extinguishes hope, a reality that is perpetuating, inevitable, and damning.

In “City of Spectres”, Bandi identifies the tyranny of the proletariat, “A dictatorship of the people! Yes, the people of this city understand all too well the reality of that idea”. Han Gyeoong-hee, a dedicated manager of a marine products shop, has a baby son that is terrified by huge posters of Marx and Kim II-sung, which are visible from her apartment windows. She begins drawing the curtains, but this elicits the wrath of the local Party secretary, who is concerned over how the drawn curtains are visible from the street, especially on the eve of National Day celebrations. He accuses her of using the drawn curtains, which have been closely monitored by the Party, as a secret code to communicate with spies. At first, she reels at the accusation, but her boldness takes over and she laughs at the Party secretary, scorning him, belittling his accusation. This is to have far-reaching consequences. For one, an accusation can be a goose feather, for another, a sabre. For Han Gyeoong-hee, the roaring streets of Pyongyang resemble Marx with his great mane, and his spectral presence seems plucked from some ghastly legend. By the end of the story, she “sensed hundreds of figures hovering at those windows, peering out like rabbits from their burrows, eyes narrowed in accusation”.

In The Accusation, we are reminded of Bentham’s and Foucault’s conceptualisation of the panopticon, an institutional building and system of control, where people self-monitor and self-regulate because they feel they are constantly visible, becoming the architects of their own subjection. This feeling of total subjugation permeates throughout the book, where people are in a sustained state of contradiction, shifting between self-monitoring and being actually monitored. Accusations come from all directions like unrestrained, lambasting winter winds. This is a work of unassailable tragedy. There are points you can’t bring yourself to read anymore, it’s a full blown, collision course that cannot be avoided. You want to scream out – how can life be this cruel? But you don’t, for as you learn in The Accusation, that will do no good.

Throughout the book, we learn about Class One VIP events that paralyse the country, about Family Class 149, and how a person can be generationally persecuted for no other reason than the alleged crimes of their relatives. We learn about stage-truths and how lies need to be presented as the truth. It’s a strange, horrid word. A recurring, inexhaustible reality. These stories draw from fables. Stores that are told to caution children. The fable about the Eobi, a demon that throws misbehaving children down a well. In one of Bandi’s stories, a character provokingly asks, “You think the Eobi is just a fairy tale?” Pandemonium, the fable of a demon who has a garden surrounded on all sides by a high wall from where he rules over his slaves. From inside, we hear laughter. The demon has bewitched his slaves; they can’t help but laugh. Bandi likens all of North Korea to this chamber of laughter.

It is in the world of literature, its generative schemes, its theatre of emotions, its universe of signs, where we are most intimately initiated in the consciousness of ideology. The realm where ideas are actualised, where they are internalised, where feelings like abjectness become acute, articulated, and are administered. Bandi has looked into the soul of the Workers’ Party, its machinations, and discovered its dark, demonic heart.

The Accusation Author: Bandi
Translated by: Deborah Smith
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Year: 2017
Pages: 247
Price: Rs1,095

Arsalan Isa

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