English translation of 2014 Korean original by Deborah Smith, Grove, 2017
Subtitled “Forbidden Stories From Inside North Korea” the bright propaganda poster cover certainly drew my attention whilst browsing Elliott Bay Books, and a few glances inside sold me. Attributed to a North Korean writer under the name of Bandi, and coming to publication via a nearly mythological chain of events involving a manuscript smuggled out of the country, I’ll opt to defer judgement on the authenticity of the provenance and focus on the stories.
The book is a collection of very human short stories. They are told from multiple perspectives, but all have in common The State overriding The Individual.
The toddler son of a senior government functionary is afraid of the statue of Marx outside their prominent apartment, and when his mother lowers the blinds so that he can’t see it the family receives an order to move out to effective banishment in the countryside.
A man receives a telegram informing him that his mother is gravely ill, and when his application for a travel permit is refused finds himself breaking the travel regulations and essentially stowing away on a train that gets him close to his hometown. As he comes up to the final checkpoint before the village he is so lost in thought that he doesn’t think about how to get around it, and having no permits he is arrested and immediately sent off to a month of hard labor.
A model plant manager finds himself tasked with leading an effort to turn a mountainside into productive fields to supply his own factory and throws himself at the effort – but when heavy storms bring flooding and destroy the crop he is personally held accountable for both the field and factory losses.
And so on and so forth. Based on what is generally known about North Korea the stories ring plausible. Description of day to day life fits in with much of socialist realist literature from the likes of East Germany and Poland as well as China. As a collection of stories it is an excellent piece of work showcasing how far “The State” can impact the individual.