“The Red Years” is available for purchase on Amazon here.
The manuscript was yellowing, frayed – so fragile, in fact, that Do Hee-yun thought it might crumble in his hands.
This was a hallowed text for a human rights lawyer. Hidden inside a copy of “The Selected Works of Kim Il-Sung,” these loose sheaves of paper represented the first complete collection of dissident literature to be successfully smuggled out of North Korea.
Comprising seven short stories and over fifty poems, the manuscript provided a nuanced, if plaintive, insight into the interior lives of ordinary North Koreans.
More astonishing yet, though, was its authorship. Reportedly a member of the Choson Writers’ League’s Central Committee, the writer of these texts sat in the highest echelons of the DPRK’s propaganda machine.
Bandi – a pseudonym meaning “firefly” – is said to have been born in 1950, and was brought up in China during the Korean War. In his twenties he became a successful magazine writer in the DPRK, although any private loyalty he retained for the Kim regime had dissolved by the 1990s.
It was during this period that Bandi wrote the collection of short stories Do received through an intermediary in 2013, and would go on to be published by Grove Press as “The Accusation.”
There is little if any hope in “The Accusation”
The North Korea presented in the collection is an absurdist, paranoid dreamscape.
A mother draws the curtains of her apartment in downtown Pyongyang to prevent her infant son wailing in terror at the sight of Kim Il Sung’s smiling face on a nearby poster; her neighbors use this as grounds to denounce her as a foreign spy.
A secret policeman is driven to suicide after his son is spotted holding hands with his girlfriend during the mourning period for The Great Leader.
An internally-exiled scientist turns around the fortunes of a bean paste factory, only to be put on trial after the local party discovers his brother-in-law defected to South Korea.
There is little if any hope in “The Accusation” – its characters’ luck always turns, and their humor belongs to the gallows. The collection’s lumbering pessimism and the author’s keen awareness of the contradictions within the Kim regime also suggested to some that Bandi was unlikely to still be living in the DPRK.
“There is speculation that he may be a North Korean refugee, a suspicion that I’ve also harbored,” Krys Lee, an English professor at Yonsei University, recently told The New Yorker. This is a sentiment echoed by journalist Barbara Demick: “If I were to put my money on it, I would say the story is not exactly what it seems,” she told the magazine.
It hardly mattered. The collection was a publishing sensation. Translated into 30 languages, “The Accusation” garnered rave reviews in the UK and United States, and won both the British PEN Translation Prize and the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Human Rights in the European Parliament.
Now comes the poetry. Published in South Korea in 2018, over fifty poems from the original manuscript have now been released in English as ‘The Red Years: Forbidden Poems from Inside North Korea.”
Translating the collection into English was a uniquely attractive prospect for Heinz Insu Fenkl. “They reminded me of poems from my mother’s generation,” Fenkl tells me, who came to translation early in life.
“The language is a kind of Korean that, to a South Korean, would be probably reminiscent of [the language spoken] in and around the time of the Korean War,” he says. “Or even earlier.”
Born in 1960 to a Korean mother and a Sudeten-German father in the U.S. Army, Fenkl spent his childhood as the family interpreter. After his father was transferred to a base in West Germany, he began translating Korean folk tales in his school notebooks, which Fenkl kept doing even into his university days.
After obtaining a master’s degree in creative writing from UC Davis, he traveled back to South Korea on a Fulbright Fellowship and began translation work full-time.
“I also have nostalgic thoughts about my mother and the difficult life she endured,” [Fenkl] says.
Nowadays, Fenkl is most comfortable translating poetry and prose from the colonial era to the early 1980s. Even though the language of “The Red Years” was the type spoken during the Korean War, the individual poems reminded him of life under South Korea’s Park Chung-hee administration.
It’s a period Fenkl recalls in the collection’s introduction with mixed feelings, a paranoid time when his family sheltered his draft-dodging uncle from the police.
“I remembered staying awake on winter nights in dimly-lit rooms full of tobacco smoke and the smoke of burnt meat, listening to my relatives eating, drinking and bursting into song,” he writes, rare moments of release where they might be “viciously or poignantly critical of the government” in ways they never could outside.
A similarly repressed anger crackles across several poems in the collection. Unsubtle comparisons of party apparatchiks with fetid animal life abound in “Toad,” while the snarled and creaking planned economy is unceremoniously picked apart in “Red Locomotive,” a treatment extended to Kim Il Sung’s personality cult in “Idol” (“That’s the kind of poem that, if it were found in your possession in North Korea, you would probably be executed,” says Fenkl).
This rhetoric culminates in “The Song of the Five Thieves,” an unsubtle comparison between the legendary Korean conman Kim Seon-dal and Kim Il Sung:
Here a thief, there a thief – even a king looks small among you –
And Fatty Kim, the worst thief on Heaven and Earth, squats down,
Squashing factories, farms, the whole countryside, under a single cheek of his ass
And in broad daylight he bites off chunks to devour at his whim.
It is when Bandi turns his attention away from the party, however, that his poetry is at its strongest. “I Awaited You, My Love” is an impassioned panegyric to defection in the best tradition of Soviet writer Konstantin Simonov.
Elsewhere the physical toll of North Korean winters is revealed in “Blizzard” (‘chest pounding, sobbing, the sound of winter crying/try to tear it up, throw it out, your unfortunate fate’) while recollections of maternal sacrifice are painfully unveiled in ‘Thoughts of Mother.’
That poem had a personal resonance for Fenkl. “I also have nostalgic thoughts about my mother and the difficult life she endured,” he says.
“And in that poem, what you get in the narrative is somebody who has realized after the fact how much his mother suffered, and a kind of realization that comes too late for the mother to appreciate it.”
The variety in tone in “The Red Years” leads Fenkl to theorize that, while the stories in “The Accusation” are likely to have been written by a single author, these poems were probably the work of several individuals.
This, he reasons, suggests that the existence of at least one group in North Korea circulating samizdat literature in much the same way as dissidents did in the Soviet Union.
“If you’re a short story writer, you write narrative and then you go through revisions,” explains Fenkl.
“And the narrative often controls the use of language. The poems I found really interesting, because they seem to be written in different voices…it wouldn’t be hard to imagine many of those poems being written by distinctly different people with a different way of expressing emotion.”
Strengthening Fenkl’s theory is the lyrical style of the poems – many of them, in fact, retain a ballad quality suggesting that they should be sung, and in a group.
“These poems have the quality of protest songs,” he says. “And they’re also resonating with the quality of Korean poetry that would be a living culture. In my introduction, I talk about how, in South Korea, any social gathering requires that people sing and dance. And these poems are, you can see, a part of that culture too.”
Fenkl concedes that this is just a theory – he is not one of the select few who have actually seen the original manuscript, and has had no contact with Bandi.
“You cannot be definitive about this,” he says, and it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that a single individual is responsible for writing the stories and the poems.
“In English literature, Shakespeare is a genius because he has so many different personae, each of which is very convincing in his plays,” says Fenkl. “That could be what makes the poems seem much more distinct.”
The poems demonstrate that “the oppressive quality of [the] government… was very clearly understood to be a façade.”
But are they good? On this subject, Fenkl believes context is king. For many South Koreans, the lyricism of ‘The Red Years’ would disqualify its entry into the contemporary literary canon. “The form would not be seen as very innovative,” he explains.
“But you have to remember these are from a manuscript that was brought south in the mid-90s [and] also, they reflect the sentiment and I guess the poetic consciousness of somebody who was born in 1950.”
The kinds of social gatherings suggested by the poems – boozy, smoke-filled nights filled with song and dance – are now disappearing from contemporary South Korean culture.
“You go to a karaoke bar now,” says Fenkl, a little dolefully. “You don’t memorize your own regional songs and perform them accompanied by people clapping chopsticks.”
In “The Red Years” though, we are shown the possibility of this kind of communal solidarity persisting. In Fenkl’s reading, the poems demonstrate that “the oppressive quality of [the] government was seen through. And it was very clearly understood to be a façade.”
The collection, then, is a fragment of this private enclave – the ardent defense of an interiority unbroken by propaganda.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News