There’s been a lot of talk about cults lately, mostly one cult in particular. And I keep seeing the name Aum Shinrikyo tossed around in that context, people talking about how similar current cult action is to Aum and what we can learn from that. Which got me to wondering about Aum again. Which then led to me remembering Murakami’s book on the subject and the fact that I had the English translation on my shelf. Those of you who have been reading since my death slog through Murakami’s 1Q84 will know that I found that novel so repellent that it retroactively poisoned the Murakami well for me, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to read any of his smug prose ever since, even books that I once loved like A Wild Sheep Chase. I can see his future in his past now, and I do not need to re-examine the origin of his ear fetish.
But Underground is non-fiction and one of the few (only?) books that lets the people who lived through the 1995 sarin gas attack tell their tale in their own words. So the chances of encountering loving descriptions of a woman’s ear were unlikely. Not zero, but close to it. And I’m pleased to report that nary an ear is mentioned in these pages. But we do get a Studs Terkel-style look at many lives and in the process gain some insight into what happened and how it affected the people involved.
I read this book many years ago when it was first published, when I lived in an entirely different world. It’s strange to be forced to reflect on who I am now and who I was then in the act of re-reading a book. But this book really did force that on me. When I read it the first time, I was living in northern Japan and not able to say much more than my name and “does this have meat in it?” (because I am a vegetarian and this is critical information) in Japanese. I had ridden the subway in Tokyo briefly when I arrived in the country, but I didn’t remember the names of the lines I took or the stations I went to. Tokyo itself was a mirage, a place I had visited and hence knew to actually exist, but it was utterly disconnected from my everyday life.
Reading Underground now, however, was a bit of a punch in the face. Because not only do I have a working map of the metro in my head after fifteen or so years of living in Tokyo on and off, my home base in the city for the last few years has been Nakano-Sakaue, one of the stations where a passenger died and sarin packets were removed from the train. I have lived on the Marunouchi line for a decade, and I couldn’t help but picture each station as it appeared in the testimonies, overlapping my own memories of these places with the horror being related on these pages. I cried more than once not just because of the sheer insensibility of the attack, but because it suddenly felt so real and personal.
Obviously, I’m not saying that simply having been in a place equates in any way to living through the attack itself. But I think it speaks to how Murakami succeeds in what he is trying to do. In talking to the victims and in some cases their surviving families, he makes an overwhelming tragedy real and personal. You can read the Wikipedia entry and learn that Aum members released sarin gas into three metro lines during rush hour on March 20, 1995, and thirteen people died, while 5500 people were injured, and you will know the facts, the scale of the tragedy. But when you read an actual human being who was there say, “I was foaming at the mouth”, those facts take on a painful emotional dimension.
The majority of the book is taken up with these interviews Murakami conducted with survivors the year after the attack, followed by an essay on his own thoughts about the attack and the state of Japanese society. The remainder of Underground is interviews with former and active members of Aum. Although these are all presented as one cohesive text in English, they were actually published separately in Japanese, the interviews with victims as Underground and the interviews with Aum members as The Place that was Promised. And the original Japanese Underground was slashed in half for publication in English, from sixty-two interviews to thirty-four. While I wish all the interviews had been published in English, I’m pretty sure that any English publisher would have balked at publishing seven hundred pages of this, and I feel like we’re lucky to get what we did in English. I don’t know if this would be the case now, when Murakami is basically a literary god, but in 2000, he didn’t quite have the stature to have a 1000-page book on a terrorist attack translated into English.
The interviews with the victims and their families tend to hit familiar notes: I was on my way to work, I couldn’t take a long weekend even though the day before and the day after were statutory holidays, I tried to keep going even though something felt weird, and—in the more serious cases—I ended up in hospital. The majority profess not to be angry with Aum. The interviews with Aum members, on the other hand, also hit the same notes over and over: I never fit in, I didn’t relate to people around me, I was looking for something more, I was exploring religions, I was relieved to hand over control to someone else. Murakami doesn’t talk to any of the people directly involved in the attack, but he does ask the Aum members what they would have done if Aum leader Asahara had asked them to do this terrible thing, and almost to a person, they say they would have refused or at least asked questions. And I just kept thinking about how good we are at lying to ourselves.
Underground is a lot and if you are already not quite steady on your feet because of this dumpster fire of a modern world, I’d recommend you stay away from it. But if you’re trying to understand the dumpster fire, Murakami presents stories of people who have been through the worst of it in sympathetic ways, never imposing an overarching narrative on the collection, but simply giving people a place where they can have a voice. And his interviews with the cultists had me thinking more than once that I could have been one of them if the right person had gotten a hold of me at the right vulnerable moment in my life.