Haruki Murakami: Underground (review)

‘The date is Monday 20 March, 1995. It is a beautiful clear spring morning. There is still a brisk breeze and people are bundled up in coats. Yesterday was Sunday, tomorrow is the Spring Equinox, a national holiday. Sandwiched right in the middle of what should have been a long weekend, you’re probably thinking “I wish I didn’t have to go to work today.” No such luck. You get up at the normal time, wash, dress, breakfast, and head for the subway station. You board the train, crowded as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. It promises to be a perfectly run-of-the-mill day. Until five men in disguise poke at the floor of the carriage with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas, puncturing some plastic bags filled with a strange liquid…’ (p. 7)

This is a strange book. I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t quite this. Most of the book consists of interviews with victims from the gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995. Then, the second part, is interviews with members of Aum, the group responsible for the gas attacks. There’s an introduction where Murakami explains why he wrote the book as well as the process with gathering the interviews and writing the book and there’s an essay, ‘Blind Nightmare: Where are we Japanese going?’ which finishes the first part.

There were 5 members of the Aum group who released Sarin gas in various subway trains. Murakami has collected the interviews so each of the 5 trains has it’s sections so what you read, are several eye witness accounts from the same event, one after another, before moving on to another train, another attack and the eye witness accounts from that. This means, that it does get a bit repetitive and this was the first thing I noticed. There are small differences in the accounts, but the main story are the same, of course. Each eye witness account tells a part of the story – each account is equally important because when taken together, they give a picture of what happe: ‘Even if there are some details inconsistent with reality, the collective narrative of these personal has a powerful reality of its own. This is something novelists are actively aware of, which is why I regard this as fitting work for a novelist.’ (p. 214)

Murakami is on a mission with this book. He wants ‘/…/ to recognize that each person on the subway that morning had a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears, contradictions and dilemmas – and that all these factors had a place in the drama.’ (p. 6). Even it if was very difficult for Murakami to find people willing to participate in this book, he wanted to show how it really felt for the people suffering the effects of the gas.

As I said, it’s a strange book. Interview after interview with survivors. All telling somewhat the same stories about experiencing symptoms like darkened vision and coughing, being confused about why and hospitals not knowing how to help. A lot of the victims still suffers from the effects when Murakami talks to them. The attack hit all types of people – some were traveling on those trains everyday, some was there only by chance, some used the subway maybe once a year… – the attack truly hit randomly, and I guess thereby hurt the most.

One of the things I found most interesting in this book was the informations about how life is in Japan for normal citizens. The interviews reveal a lot about the Japanese psyche – about work ethics and how many meet in maybe an hour or more before the work day starts, how many of the victims got back to work very very soon, even if they were suffering serious symptoms. Also how many live with their parents and siblings well in to their 20s – or how it doesn’t surprise Murkami that a man gets up at 3 in the morning to clean his entire house before going to work.

I found the interviews with the Aum members very informative. These interviews were not with people who were actually participating in the gas attacks, just people who had joined a religious group in order to find peace and a higher state of mind. Most of these were just people searching for something to give meaning and purpose to their lives and while reading these interviews, I couldn’t help but think how similar all cults are – and how dangerous it is, when we give our own choices over to others and these others are led astray by their own corrupted visions. A lot of the members of the cult had no idea what was going on and didn’t believe it really was Aum that had performed the attack until members started confessing, after being arrested.

For Murakami, what is needed after the attack is for the Japanese to take a good long look at themselves and to realize that the people who were members of Aum, aren’t that different from everyone else: ‘Now of course a mirror image is always darker and distorted. Convex and concave swap places, falsehood wins out over reality, light and shadow play tricks. But take away these dark flaws and the two images are uncannily similar; some details almost seem to conspire together. Which is why we avoid looking directly at the image, why, consciously or not, we keep eliminating these dark elements from the face we want to see. These subconscious shadows are an “underground” that we carry around within us, and the bitter aftertaste that continues to plague us long after the Tokyo gas attack comes seeping out from below.’ (p. 199).

This was a fascinating read. A bit repetitive at times, but the repetitiveness is important since it’s Murakami’s way of showing the importance of each individual victim. I thought Murakami succeeds in exploring the gas attack and the Japanese psyche and how each influence the other.

This is definitely not a book for everyone. It’s repetitiveness might put some readers off, for starters, but so might the subject. If you are interested in Japan or in terrorist actions, Murakami created an excellent testimony which is very much to the honor of the victims.

  • Title: Underground. The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
  • Author: Haruki Murakami
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Year: 2002 (original 1997)
  • Pages: 309 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

6 thoughts on “Haruki Murakami: Underground (review)

    • I recently read another blogger recommending that you read 1Q84 and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle together – I think they have a character in common. I haven’t read either yet so I’m considering reading them together at some point.
      If you’re interested in Murakami and the culture he comes from, this is a great read. How do you like 1Q84 so far?

  1. I love Murakami so I am glad to find your blog. I started 1Q84 this past July 2012. It’ s now March 2013 and I am finishing book2. I put it down for several months after book one but once I started book two, I became really hooked. It is interesting to note that in Japan it was published in three books. So I like to think of it that way. I also love how Murakami uses some of his same imaginative landscapes over and over — people cooking, attention to clothing, places, trains, music. He’s a wonderful writer to get to know because you can become so familiar with the world of his imagination. I also recommend the short stories and The Wind-up Bird Chronicles.
    p.s. I found your blog because I was reading a book I need to review for a magazine and I was bored. I went to my iPad seeking a Murakami fix.

  2. Unfortunately, Murakami’s fiction never worked for me so far, so I was a bit reluctant to read this book first. But I agree with what you write in your excellent review: it is a fascinating book, and I appreciate Murakami’s respectful, empathic approach toward the sarin attack survivors. I learned also a lot about everyday life and work routine in Japan. Not I understand now why it happened, but Murakami succeeded in presenting us the survivors as individuals that deserve our respect, understanding and support. My own review: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=1270

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