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‘Underground’ by Haruki Murakami September 10, 2007

Posted by ayasawada in Books, Japan.
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Underground cover


In short: The Japanese bury, Murakami uncovers.

Thoughts: I don’t read much non-fiction, and Murakami doesn’t write much of the sort either. But interesting things come from novelists who decide to do something different.

It’s an easy premise, examining a culture and a society through their reaction to disaster. And the gas attack, coming in quick succession to the Kobe earthquake, was a shock to the Japanese system. I don’t think Murakami was thoughtless in tackling this. For sure, most Japanese would rather close the the book on this one, sweep it under the rug and forget. Perhaps it was his time spent away from his home country, but Murakami chose instead to confront it head on.

Underground consists of sets of interviews with an array of people affected by the gas attacks: commuters, subway workers, victims, relatives, those worse affected, some who got off lightly. Each section starts with a description of the events on each subway line where Sarin gas was released, as history understands it. A selection of interviews is then presented. Two thirds of the way in Murakami presents his own take on the events and the Japanese psyche, before the final section of accounts from members of the Aum cult responsible (this final part was actually a sequel of sorts to the original book, called The Place Promised, collected with the original in the English translation).

History of larger than life events is captivating, particularly when pieced together from different memories. Comparing the collective memory with each individuals’, each person a glimpse in another’s memory. Some have a profound impact, others are fleeting, all go their separate ways. None remember things clearly. Emotion, adrenaline, not to mention the gas, made it difficult for any to keep hold of themselves, making those who acted clearly all the more heroic.

From an editor’s point of view, the book is fascinating. What was left in, what was left out? Where has the narrative been smoothed (and what has been lost in translation)? Most of the accounts are a straight narrative, but occasionally Murakami allows his intrusion through one of his interview questions. It breaks the story, snaps us back into reality, and maybe guides us to the author’s intent (or maybe flags up the artificiality of his constructed narrative). He also sets a mindset for the reader beforehand. Each testimony opens with a quote, and an introduction. It always describes the person, their circumstances at the time of the attack, but is descriptive for some, speculative of others. The choice of is interesting. What drove his choices?

I’m not going to reiterate all the things it points out a wrong with Japanese culture, or how ill-prepared the authorities were for such a disaster. What I did find shocking shouldn’t really be: how ill-prepared the people were for this kind of thing. But I guess no-one can be really. Of course, it makes you think how you might react.

Some of the accounts were really difficult to read. Murakami has structured the book well, shuffling in the right places and building up the melodrama toward the climax. The final two victim accounts are of the wife and parents of a man who died. Contrived, but no less tough to read. And reading the book, as I did, on your daily commute on the subway made it a little more creepy. It’s the sort of thing I’d like all commuters to read. Makes you appreciate your place a bit more.

The final part on Aum members was the most interesting, and the most unsettling. It was not unexpected that the accounts should shock. No doubt all Aum members, even those who did not take part in the attack, were misguided. But what shocked me was the naivety. That and the resonance which it had with me. As Murakami concludes:

Most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they’re disadvantaged; they’re not eccentrics. They are average people who live average lives (and maybe from the outside, more than average lives) who live in my neighbourhood. And yours.

Maybe they think about things too seriously. Perhaps, there’s some pain they’re carrying around inside. They’re not good at making their feelings known to others and are somewhat troubled. They can’t find a suitable means to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. That might very well be me. It might be you.


1. Cliff Burns - September 11, 2007

Just finished reading and reviewing AFTER DARK for my site. The book you describe in your mini-essay sounds fascinating…and not at all like something I would expect Murakami to write. Good for him to take time away from his fictional efforts to better document an event that’s been kind of forgotten here in the west, in the wake of the Bali and London bombings and, of course, the events that happened six years ago this morning…

2. ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami « Canned Memory - July 7, 2010

[…] like Murakami’s fiction, but I also like his non-fiction. Underground was an unexpectedly brilliant take on the Tokyo Gas Attacks and, as I previously wrote, an […]

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