The Murakami Project: Joe T. Reviews ‘Underground’

The Murakami Project: Each week leading up to October 25th, the on-sale date of Haruki Murakami’s long-awaited 1Q84 in its English translation, a different BookPerson will review one of Murakami’s previous titles. Folks who haven’t read Murakami yet can familiarize themselves with what the book world will be buzzing about come October (and maybe discover a new favorite book), and established fans can remember why they fell in love with him in the first place.

Week 5.

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Book: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
Reviewer:  Joe T.

This book has been a difficult experience for me. I picked it up and put it back down multiple times before finally finishing it this morning. It was especially harrowing to read these voices on September 11, 2011. It brought back memories of 1995 to me, a 1995 very similar to the one described in this book, except my 1995 was in April and it involved Timothy McVeigh and Oklahoma City. Haruki Murakami’s 1995 was May 20th when members of the cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas into Tokyo subways killing thirteen people and injuring a thousand. These events, linked as they are, only leave us wondering why? and how? and whether those questions can ever be answered.

Underground is Murakami’s way of asking that why and looking for what answers he can find. Over the course of 34 interviews with passengers, subway employees, and the doctors who treated them, we are treated to a long, repetitive examination of fate, of resignation, of stultifying structure. This is not an easy read nor one that should be done in long bursts. One should tease out the interviews. Read one or two at a time and let the individual personalities shine as opposed to noticing the symptoms they all share, the types of jobs they all share, the lives they all share.

This same reasoning and that same demand for answers also lie in the interviews with eight current and former members of Aum Shinrikyo. These people also share lives that, with a few minor details here and there, are basically the same. They are mirror images of the drone workers who were the victims of their cult’s attacks. Only instead of the implicit conformity of the Japanese business culture, they face the explicit sameness that lies at the root of cult structures.

Murakami wrote this book, partly, as a way to become reacquainted with his country after living abroad for many years. He became a certain Studs Terkel, interviewing a swath of the Japanese psyche to try to make sense of the whole, to understand turn of the century Japan. I’m not truly convinced he succeeded and, I think, neither is he, but this book, as he mentions in one of two afterwards, has recommitted him to the task of offering narratives to counter the ones peddled by Aum and their ilk. I think, in that, he has succeeded.

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