Fugitive fiction—literally—from inside North Korea, devastatingly critical of the Kim dynasty and its workers’ paradise.
What do you do when your baby cries at a solemn gathering? You excuse yourself and leave the room—unless you’re standing before a huge portrait of your beloved leader alongside beloved runner-up Karl Marx, in which case you pray that the baby in question does not bring down suspicion on your head as an enemy of the state, a saboteur, and that the tears do not unleash mythological monsters, to say nothing of “hundreds of figures hovering at [the] windows, peering out like rabbits from their burrows, eyes narrowed in accusation.” A squalling infant might be one thing, a drawn curtain another, a bird cage another still: in claustrophobic North Korea, everything has significance, and though ordinary communication comes barking down from loudspeakers, it’s the silences and pauses that carry more than their share of the weight. In these seven stories, Bandi—the name means “firefly” in Korean—describes, with numbing gravity, how awful life inside a totalitarian state really is. “What do you think, Comrade Hong,” says one bureaucrat, thinking his way through a worker’s crime of holding hands with a “factory girl.” “Can this be classed a general incident, or is it a political matter?” There is a streak of satire in these stories, but mostly they are grimly realistic. Bandi is rumored to be a writer within the government, and certainly the author has access to the broad sweep of North Korean society, from industrial workers and farmers to midlevel political functionaries; all are equally oppressed by an all-encompassing system that crushes ordinary emotion and replaces it with piety. Laments one young cadre, “Oh, when would Min-hyuk’s uncle be allowed to join the Party and see his true worth discovered?”
Of more journalistic and sociological than literary interest, without the inventiveness of recent writing south of the 38th parallel—but still an important document of witness.