Forbidden Stories From North Korea



The Accusation is a collection of seven stories and two poems written under the pseudonym ‘Bandi’ or firefly by a dissident writer still living in North Korea and set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim-Il Sung and Kim-Jong Il. The stories are a window into the secret world of the hereditary dictatorships of the Kim family characterized by propaganda, corruption, nepotism and bureaucratic ineptitude where the government controls every aspect of a citizen’s life. While there are many works published by writers who have defected to South Korea, this is presumably the first collection written by a writer still living in North Korea to cross the border. The author risked his or her life to make these harrowing stories see the light of day. The account of how the manuscript made it out from North Korea into South Korea is an interesting story in its own right and is included as an afterword.

The chilling and profoundly sad stories are fictional but based on the experiences of real people and they all share a common thread. They reveal the fear and despair of the citizens, who, living under the watchful eye of authority, have to be constantly on guard as anything can be construed as conspiracy against the state. Each and every story is about an accusation. A person could be banished to the countryside, forced into a life of hard labor or even executed for a slight infraction, real or perceived.

Record of a Defection reveals how you have to atone for the sins of your ancestors. A peasant was accused of being an anti-revolutionary and of sabotaging the Party’s agricultural collectivization project as he was not abreast with the latest technology of growing rice seedlings in greenhouses. Years later his entire family suffers the consequences of his actions. His young grandson cannot run for Class President at his school. One black mark against you which can be a trifling offence or even an absurd non-offence can taint not only you and your family but many future generations.

City of Specters– A two year old is frightened by the gigantic posters near Central Square of Karl Marx and Kin Il-Sung visible from his apartment window. He mistakes them for monsters. His mother tries to allay his fears by drawing the curtains but the neighborhood is expected to exhibit uniformity in appearance for the upcoming National Day parade and her action is viewed as an infraction. Although she is a privileged woman, she has to pay a heavy price for this misstep. It is a richly symbolic story. These specters of Communism haunt not just the little boy but all the citizens in all of the land.

Life of a Swift Steed– A decorated war veteran  had planted an elm tree in his youth as a symbol of the growth of a new socialist state. He had envisioned a life where everyone would live in a tile-roofed house, eat meat and rice and wear silks but the reality is that the people are living in poverty and there is a dearth of fuel in the freezing weather. The state wants to cut down his beloved elm which is interfering with a power line. The tree ends up being a symbol of his disillusionment as he comes to the painful realization that his medals mean nothing and that his entire life has been a sham.

So Near Yet so Far– Myeong-Chol, a hard-working miner wishes to visit his sick mother in the countryside but the state will not give him a permit to leave his province as there is a Class 1 celebration for the leader in his mother’s town and travel is forbidden to the district. After his application for a pass is denied three times, the man who has always been a stickler for rules, decides to make the journey illegally with the help of a friend. He gets tantalizingly close to seeing his mother as the title suggests but will he see the dying old woman and what will be his punishment for violating travel regulations?

Pandemonium– An old woman is traveling with her husband and granddaughter to visit her pregnant daughter but they end up being trapped in a crowded railway station. All traffic has come to a halt as the Great Leader Kim Il- Sung is about to visit the area. In desperation, she sets out on foot to visit her daughter and ends up getting a ride in the leader’s personal entourage and accidentally becomes part of a propaganda video. The government’s report of her happy laughter is in striking contrast to the pandemonium at the station where her husband and granddaughter suffered injuries.

On Stage– Even a month after the demise of the leader, authorities would monitor how many times people put flowers at his altar. The people risked venomous snakes and landslides to pick flowers to demonstrate their grief.  Grief was closely monitored and people became experts at faking it. An improvisational comic skit had once landed a young man in hot water. He was suspected of being brainwashed by South Korean anti-Communist freedom broadcasts and now, much to the ire of his father, he is in trouble again for having held the hand of the daughter of a political prisoner and for picking flowers in a state of intoxication. He explains to his father how living in North Korea is akin to being on stage.

The Red Mushroom– A man requests a journalist to clear his uncle’s name. He has become a scapegoat of the party when the bean paste factory where he works runs short of supply due to mistakes made higher up. Unfortunately, even sincere journalists have to toe the party line:

“Eventually, he decided that he had no other choice than to knuckle down, amend the article so that the praise was meted out as the Party demanded it be, and submit it to the newspaper, all the while heaping curses on the field of journalism which he had been unfortunate enough to enter….”

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Deborah Smith who has translated these stories beautifully into English retaining the local color and turn of phrase. The writing is stark but yet imbued with poetry. Whether it is a description of a cuckoo ‘crying out as if it were choking on a clot of blood’ or of people assembled in the square like ‘blocks of tofu’ or of a person shedding ” a pitcher’s worth of tears from a cup of sadness”, the similes and metaphors startle and suit the melodramatic nature of the tales. Many of the stories are repetitive but the repetition only serves to reinforce the shared plight of all the citizens whose fates are determined by the accident of birth and hang precariously on a piece of paper in a bureaucratic office.

There are Orwelian overtones in the stories but sadly this is not a dystopian world. It is a scathing indictment of a dynastic totalitarian regime which hasn’t changed much since the time the stories were written. In The Red Mushroom, the last story of the collection, the municipal building which stands for the red European specter is compared to a poisonous mushroom, the root of all misfortune and suffering and the story ends with the protagonist’s heart crying out the collective silent yearning of the people: “Pull out that red mushroom, that poisonous mushroom. Uproot it from this land, from this world, forever!” 

The afterword to the stories reveals the interesting trajectory of the manuscript as it made its way to South Korea thanks to a relative of the author who enlists the help of a human rights activist. We learn that Bandi is a writer of the Chosun Writers’ League but other biographical details have been altered to protect his or her identity. Bandi who sees himself or herself as a firefly illuminating the darkness that engulfs North Korea includes, in lieu of acknowledgements, a poem imploring us to read his words. We owe it to the daring author to honor his request. Please read his book as an act of solidarity.


In Memoriam:Ursula K. Le Guin ( The Wife’s Story)

Werewolf- From a German Woodcut, 1722

I was deeply saddened to hear about the demise of Ursula K. Le Guin, the acclaimed science fiction and fantasy writer best known for her Earthsea series. She was much more than a writer of science fiction. She was a poet, a philosopher, a feminist and a visionary. She had penned many poems, short stories, essays and even written children’s books. What is uncanny is that I was in the process of writing this blog post on one of her short stories when I heard the sad news yesterday. What a coincidence! Maybe I have acquired some ESP skills of my own while immersing myself in her fictional world!

I recently happened upon an inventive and cleverly written short story from Le Guin’s 1982 collection, The Compass Rose. The story veers out of the sci-fi genre into the realm of myth and folklore. I have always relished stories about mythical and supernatural beings. After all, dragons, wizards, vampires and other shape-shifting creatures are more enthralling than a world peopled with dull people like us. This fascination that I undoubtedly share with countless other readers goes beyond the curiosity of the unknown. In Jungian terms, myths and mythical creatures convey archetypal truths about human nature and emanate from our ‘collective unconscious’. These myths and legends have existed for millennia across the world among different cultures and are as old as humankind itself.

Please read Le Guin’s interesting story here (it is brief and you can read it in a few minutes.) before you read the rest of my post which contains spoilers:

The story is narrated in first person from the perspective of a wife. At the beginning of the story, she creates the picture of an ideal husband. She describes the gentle and considerate ways of someone devoted to his family. This hardworking man and wonderful father is also gifted with an amazing ability to sing. But his disposition starts to change gradually. He becomes more irritable and starts disappearing from home. His prolonged absences arouse his wife’s suspicions especially as his voice changes when he returns home and he even starts smelling strange. Needless to say, the transformation scares the wife and children. His little daughter becomes afraid of him overnight. We are told that it’s the moon’s fault and that he has got the curse in his blood. Could this man be transforming into a wolf?  The next time the moon changes, the wife sees a fleshy and furious man emerging in place of the handsome wolf. The pack hunts him down and brutally puts him to death.

Wow! I never saw this coming! The reversal of the werewolf story is a clever ploy by the writer. The first person narration is a good device to trick the readers into believing that the story is about human beings. She certainly managed to dupe me. The narrator keeps us guessing throughout the story and the plot is unraveled gradually, a hint at a time. The unexpected twist in the end when you discover that the wolf is the true form makes you go back to re-read the story in light of what you have discovered. Not once does the narrator say that the story is about human beings but the reader makes the assumption about the text. It is interesting how our minds can be tricked into believing what we perceive to be true. The narrator teases us by talking about the close bond she shares with her sister, her parents who have moved south and her life in a community. I thought her perfect husband had gone astray and had infidelity issues when she brings up the smells that linger and describes how he washes himself to get rid of the smells. I even suspected child abuse when the little girl develops a revulsion for her father overnight and is petrified of him.

Yet, the narrator drops many hints throughout the story. She talks of a hunting trip and game, of the husband sleeping during the day and the fact that on one sleepless occasion, he goes out in the glaring sun. He also leads the singing in the full moon with others joining in which should have led us to imagine wolves howling to the moon. At this point I realized the story was about a werewolf. But I still thought it was about a man who changes into a wolf. It was only when the wife trembled with a grief howl and a terror howl that I finally realized she is a wolf.

Fiction abounds in examples of the werewolf motif right from classical antiquity to modern literature like the Harry Potter series. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lycaon is transformed into a wolf by Zeus for serving him the flesh of a prisoner and for attempting to murder him while he slept. (the Greek word for wolf is ‘lycos’ and the word lycanthropy or ability to transform into a wolf is derived from the same root). In a Breton lai called Bisclavret, written by Marie de France in the 12th century, a werewolf’s wife on discovering his secret identity becomes disgusted with his physical appearance and doesn’t wish to “lie with him” anymore. She finds a knight who had been pursuing her for a while and schemes with him to steal the wolf’s clothes and prevent him from becoming human. The selfish adulterous wife turns out to be more ‘beastly’ than her noble werewolf husband and in the end is banished out of the kingdom by the King but not before having her nose bitten off by the wolf.

There was a time when people believed seriously in werewolves and thought they were humans under a curse who could change their form into wolves. Any unusually hairy person or someone with a sensitivity to light could have been rumored to be a werewolf centuries ago. Unfortunately they were thought to be in cahoots with witches and just like their alleged partners in crime, they were also put to death in the Middle Ages.

Le Guin has subverted this popular literary trope into something unexpected and has demonstrated how we as readers bring our biases and preconceived notions to the text, which begs the question as to who the real beast is. If it is scary to imagine a man turning into a wolf, doesn’t the transformation from a wolf to a man present an even more frightening prospect?

Adieu, Ursula le Guin! You have departed this world, I hope, only to find newer worlds beyond! I can imagine you in some far away galaxy in the universe spinning even more wondrous tales!


A Normal Paranormal


I had settled myself comfortably on the couch, snuggled with a copy of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories and was looking forward to a quiet and peaceful evening engrossed in the soothing pleasure of reading. What was I thinking? After all, I was reading Daphne Du Maurier and I should have known better. I have read most of her novels and I should have been prepared to be shaken out of my comfort zone. The stories kept me on edge constantly and the evening ended with me feeling out of sorts and a little terrified too. Du Maurier is best known for her Gothic novel Rebecca, a gripping psychological thriller. Her short stories are less well known but they create the same suspenseful and unsettling atmosphere that can send chills down your spine or, at the least, leave a bad taste in your mouth. This collection has five stories, each distinct and different from the other, yet they create the same familiar feeling of foreboding. They are all page turners without exception.

Don’t Look Now, the eponymous first story which is almost the length of a novella, is the most famous of the collection as it was made into a successful film in 1973 by Nicolas Roeg starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. John and Laura Baxter who are grieving the death of their little daughter, make a trip to heal to Venice where they come across a pair of elderly twin sisters who claim they can see the ghost of the dead little girl near the couple. One of the sisters is blind and a clairvoyant psychic who can look into the future. She warns the couple that they are in danger and must leave Venice as soon as possible. They soon learn that their son in boarding school is hospitalized and may need surgery. Laura promptly leaves the city for England whereas John stays on for another day and starts seeing things. The blind sister thinks that he is a psychic too but is not aware of it. He is gradually overcome with confusion and paranoia and if things were not bizarre enough already, there is also a serial killer prowling in the area. The ending is frightening and unexpected. The setting is evocative and plays an important role as in all of du Maurier’s works. Who can forget Manderley’s imposing presence in Rebecca where the mysterious mansion stands out almost like a character itself? And who would have imagined that Venice, the idyllic tourist destination, a city we associate with beauty and romance would be a backdrop for this chilling supernatural story? The dark alleyways and labyrinthine canals create a sinister effect. One could say that the twists and turns in the plot are disorienting like the meandering alleys of Venice or like the mind of the narrator itself.

Not After Midnight is a story told in flashback of a man who is clearly suffering from a mysterious ailment or even a nervous breakdown. Timothy Grey, the teacher of a prep school, looks forward to his vacation in Crete to spend his time in solitude pursuing his hobby. He has a penchant for painting seascapes. He is determined to stay in a sea front chalet even when he finds out that just two weeks before his arrival, the previous occupant had drowned in the ocean, half eaten by octopuses. He is annoyed by the presence on the property of an obnoxious and boorish American named Mr. Stoll who drinks like a fish and brews his own beer. He and his wife hunt rare artefacts endowed with strange powers. Mrs. Stolls invites Mr. Grey to visit their chalet but curiously “not after midnight” and leaves him a peculiar gift, an ancient drinking horn decorated with “Silenos, drunken tutor to the God Dionysus”. He is seized with a morbid curiosity about what may have happened to the former guest and follows the Stolls around. The conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous and the words “not after midnight” are left unexplored. After building up an  atmosphere of great tension with a sense of impending doom, Du Maurier leaves us disappointed, longing for more. I thought the story had a lot of potential and I felt cheated by the ending. Or maybe I just need to brush up on my Greek mythology.

The Breakthrough is a strange sci-fi story combined with the occult. An engineer is sent to work at a research facility in the middle of the Norfolk marshes where the scientist in charge is conducting secret experiments. He and his team are working on a device called Charon ( Du Maurier seems to have a predilection for the symbolism of Greek legends) that has the ability to transmit psychic messages and control a dog and a mentally disabled little girl but the true purpose is something more ambitious and frightening. Their goal is to capture the living energy from a soul of a person at the time of death in order to examine the afterlife. A member of the team is a young man dying with leukemia who is ready to be their guinea pig. The premise of the story is interesting in spite of being dated but the conclusion is underwhelming and anti-climactic like the previous story.

A Borderline Case is the most risqué and disconcerting story of the collection with a compelling title that can be interpreted in many different ways. After her father dies suddenly , Shelagh, a nineteen year old actress, decides to look up his estranged colleague in Ireland. He was best man at her parents’ wedding but shortly thereafter vanished without a trace from their lives. She arrives in a village in Ireland and discovers that he lives in an island in the middle of a lake and is either crazy or a criminal. She is irresistibly drawn to this mysterious man and his ways. I enjoyed this story as the ending completely caught me unawares. Some readers may find the dark and disturbing denouement quite predictable but I did not see it coming. Du Maurier drops hints throughout the story but also distracts us enough with developments in the plot that we are completely taken by surprise or shock as in the case of this story.

The Way of the Cross has a different tone from the rest of the stories. It is more didactic in nature, almost like a parable. A young inexperienced clergyman, Rev. Edward Babcock, has to fill in for a vicar who has fallen sick and escort a group of parishoners on a tour of Jerusalem. The group includes a retired colonel, his snobbish wife and their energetic and precocious grandson, a business man with a roving eye and his tolerant wife, an elderly ‘spinster’ smitten with the absent vicar and a newly married couple on their honeymoon experiencing intimacy issues. Biblical analogies abound through the actions of the characters as they retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Land on the first day of Jewish Passover. A strained dinner is followed by a walk on the Mount of Olives where everyone scatters and gets separated. Miscommunications and betrayals take place. Numerous mishaps happen in the form of accidents or humiliations ending with each of the characters having an epiphany and learning a valuable lesson.

Du Maurier has a remarkable talent for describing the extraordinary in the ordinary. All the characters are regular people in everyday situations with everyday problems with whom you can relate well. You are lulled into a false sense of security while reading about them till you realize that something is off kilter. Nothing is as it seems when you peel the surface and layers. The characters go about their mundane lives but they have an insatiable curiosity that leads them into places and situations they are unfamiliar with and chaos ensues. The paranormal is treated as normal in a casual way and soon the boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred. The endings often leave you  bewildered and baffled. You have to go back to the first few pages and piece together how it all fits together. You think the stories have ended but have they? They stay with you long after you place the book back on the bookshelf or return it to the library. I know I’ll be thinking about these stories for days, if not months or years.


A Russian Christmas

‘Tis the season to read Christmas stories. I recently read two short stories related to Christmas by two different giants of Russian literature: Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Both stories are distressing and unsettling and they may not be the best selection for Christmas when you want to read something cheerful, but let’s be realistic; life is full of ups and downs and Christmas is not a happy time of celebration for everyone.

At Christmas Time by Anton Chekhov is a poignant story of a poor peasant family, written in two parts. In the first part of the story, an illiterate couple hires an innkeeper’s relative during the holiday season to write a letter to their daughter Efimia whom they haven’t seen for four years since she got married and moved to St. Petersburg. They have only received two letters from her during that period and they are not even sure if they have any grandchildren or not. The mother, Vasilissa, has a deep love for her daughter and gets emotional while speaking out her affectionate Christmas message to Yegor, the scribe. He, on the other hand, is indifferent to her suffering. He is not interested in the couple or their daughter and adds nonsensical thoughts about the military in the letter which have no relevance to the mother’s sentiments. The second part of the story takes place at Efimia’s house which is a room attached to the medical establishment where her husband works as a porter and where they live with their three little children. She bursts out sobbing while reading her parents’ letter.

You can read the story here:
At Christmas Time

We learn that Efimia’s husband neglected to send her letters home as he was preoccupied with important business and eventually the letters got lost. It’s obvious that the young woman is trapped in a miserable marriage to an indifferent and intimidating man. She is terrified of her husband and stops speaking when he enters the room. “ She was very much frightened of him—oh, how frightened of him! She trembled and was reduced to terror by the sound of his steps, by the look in his eyes, and dared not utter a word in his presence.” And while reading out the letter from her parents, she cries out, “Queen of Heaven, Holy Mother and Defender, take us away from here!” Chekhov reveals a lot without being explicit about details. The heightened fear of the woman points out to emotional abuse and maybe even physical abuse. Similarly, we don’t know how the old couple feels about not hearing from their daughter. They miss her immensely and are not sure if she is alive or dead. They are lonely and we wonder if they feel abandoned by her as they have no inkling about her misery.

The dark and disturbing story emphasizes the fact that Christmas is not always a happy and hopeful time for all families.The ending is typical of Chekhov who leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. Life is not always orderly with definite and happy endings and his stories reflect the painful reality. Let’s proceed to the second succinct story which also manages to pack a punch in a few lines.

The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree is a powerful short story by Dostoevsky, reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl.


You can read the story here:
The Beggar Boy at Christ's Christmas Tree

On Christmas Eve, a poor six year old boy, freezing to death and suffering from terrible pangs of hunger, leaves the cellar where his mother is dying and steps out into town. He is fascinated by the lavish window displays of Christmas trees and fancy cakes that he comes across while strolling in the streets. Through a huge glass window, he sees a lovely Christmas tree and well dressed children laughing and playing and eating cakes of all sorts in a house, but when the boy opens the door and goes in, he is shooed out. A wicked boy on the road hits him on the head and makes off with his cap while he is peering through another glass window to admire dolls.

He betakes himself to someone’s courtyard behind a stack of wood where he has a vision of the Christ’s Christmas tree surrounded by dolls. They are the spirits of other children who have died and gone to heaven. They tell him that this is Christ’s Christmas tree for the little children who have no tree of their own. These angels were all little boys and girls like him who froze, starved or suffocated to death and they are now joyfully reunited with their respective mothers. In the morning, the porter finds the dead body of the frozen child on the woodstack and they find his mother too who had died before him. The story of the little boy is not unique to him but represents the plight of thousands of children who are starving and freezing during a time of merriment and joy. It’s a Dostoevskian world of misfortune and misery but there is a Christmas message underlying the sad story. The contrast between the affluent and the poor is startling in its injustice and it’s heart-wrenching to see that everyone in town is either oblivious or indifferent to the condition of the little boy. “A policeman walked by and turned away to avoid seeing the boy.”

Dostoevsky ends the story saying that what took place in the cellar and on the woodstack might have happened but he’s not sure about Christ’s Christmas tree. He is quite sure about the wretchedness of our existence but who knows what happens beyond the grave. A grim and sobering statement indeed!

I’ve always wondered what it is about 19th century Russian literature that moves me so profoundly? Is it the universal appeal of the works which portray the sorrow and suffering of the human condition or the fact that the writers can reach the depths of our souls with their sensitivity? My only regret is that I haven’t learnt Russian to read these gems in the original although I think we are fortunate to have access to some excellent translations. In my next blog post, I promise a more uplifting Christmas story by yet another literary giant of Russia. Meanwhile, I wish you all a very happy ‘Litmas’ season! Happy Reading!