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Review: Bandi’s The Accusation / Affinity Konar’s Mischling

Two books illuminate the darkest corners of secretive settings: North Korea and Auschwitz

Even if it wasn’t very good, The Accusation would be an important book. There is no other book quite like it. Through the second half of the 20th century we became used to the slow, steady flow of dissident literature from behind the curtain, though the thrill of reading Bulgakov or Solzhenitsyn has never quite stilled. These days, however, there are few places on the planet the West doesn’t have a handle on. The exception, of course, is North Korea – a country of such mystery it has the allure of the moon.

There have been hidden cameras and documentaries, with images of uniformed, well-behaved citizens performing group rituals – marching, exercising and chanting. Thus, the North Korean people have been construed as almost comical figures; slavish lemmings without curiosity, sophistication or angst. The Accusation – a collection of short stories written by an anonymous native who remains living inside its borders – tells a different tale. Its simple domestic dramas set in the offices, kitchens and bedrooms of North Korea bring us the real stuff of human life; the romances, family crises, financial worries and workplace rivalries of people living in a police state. And guess what? They’re just like us. If we were scared all the time.

Bandi places us in a parallel universe of oppressive ritual, military-style code words and bizarre restrictions

The author of The Accusation calls himself ‘Bandi’, a Korean word meaning firefly; a light that shines in the dark. We know little about him other than he was born in 1950 and still lives in North Korea with his wife and children. Towards the end of the lunatic regime of Kim Il-Sung (these stories date from 1989 – 1993; Il-Sung died in 1994) he began to write frankly about the horror of daily life for those who cower in the shadow of a paranoid megalomaniac dictator who keeps the door to the rest of the world firmly shut. Bandi’s fiction was eventually smuggled out to South Korea and is now to be published in 17 languages, with more territories bidding every month. One hopes he is dancing with glee.

What’s especially satisfying about this collection is that its worth goes well beyond the political or historical. Without melodrama or hyperbole, Bandi places us in a parallel universe of oppressive ritual, military-style code words and bizarre restrictions – in which the nightmares of two-year-olds may be deemed suspect and unpatriotic, permits for short journeys regularly go missing or are refused outright, and failure to hang state-provided net curtains (thus spoiling the uniform look of a building) is an audacious offence.

Against this societal backdrop, which reads like an Orwellian dystopia (written before they were all the rage), he tears at the heart with simple illustrations of the tenderness between husband and wife, parent and child, and a people who gaze at the larks swooping and soaring above them and marvel at their freedom.

Affinity Konar’s Mischling is an equally remarkable achievement. In terms of subject matter – it focuses on 12-year-old Pearl and Stasha, Jewish twin sisters who are experimented upon in Auschwitz – it has an obvious affinity with The Accusation. In tone and language, however, it is quite different – lyrical and poetic, it almost reads like a fairytale at times, albeit of the darkest, most terrible kind.

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It remains a bold move, to tackle the Holocaust through imaginative fiction with transcendent moments of magic and beauty; in this it is reminiscent of Roberto Benigni’s controversial Life is Beautiful. Some may recoil. But for me, as an examination of suffering and recovery, and the taunts and comforts of memory, this book is a resounding, deeply moving, success.

Bandi’s The Accusation (translated by Deborah Smith), Serpent’s Tail, £12.99

Affinity Konar’s Mischling, Atlantic Books, £12.99

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