I found Underground while browsing for some new reads from familiar authors. I have a big literary crush on Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author who wri...moreI found Underground while browsing for some new reads from familiar authors. I have a big literary crush on Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author who writes magical realism masterpieces. If you like García Márquez, then Murakami is your next love. Murakami writes lyrical, 100-lb. emotional elephant kind of books. Discovering Underground was a great surprise for me, because I didn't know he had any nonfiction to his credit. It's a collection of first-hand accounts of The 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas attack - which I'll describe more about below.
Memoir or awesome nonfiction? Awesome investigative journalism! (So over memoirs.) This was one of the worst terrorist attacks of the past decade, so it takes a deft pen like Murakami's to chronicle it. In bad hands, this could have been another salacious and insensitive "here's-my-side-of-the-story-pity-me" book, because everyone wants to cash in on a tragedy. The author makes it explicit that he is not going for that, and I believe him.
His position as a storyteller is even more complicated by his popularity in the Western World. I think Haruki Murakami was aware that he'd probably be the main interpreter of this event for a Western audience, so he tread carefully. But, I think he successfully positions himself as a voice from Japan, not the voice of Japan in his parts of the text. It's an important distinction for him to make.
Surprisingly, Murakami's voice isn't really in the book. Rather, he takes a step back and allows his interviewees to carry the emotional weight of the story, and paint a chillingly clear picture of what happened inside the trains. He deliberately separates the book into accounts of the victims, and then presents the other side from Aum cult members. The book seeks to answer why certain reactions were present over others. Some of the survivors describe how disillusioned they were with the media coverage, or with Japanese society in general. Several expressed anger about how many people avoided helping victims because they just wanted to get to work. There are a lot of salient points about deliberate social ignorance, and the nature of trauma in a society where emotion is suppressed.
What was the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attack? On March 20, 1995, members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo boarded 3 different commuter train lines going into Tokyo, and punctured bags of liquid sarin gas. They chose lines that went past government buildings. The cultists immediately debarked the trains, leaving hundreds of people on each line to suddenly go blind or being seizing due to the vapors from the gas. Many people had no idea they were poisoned until after they debarked the train and became violently ill. Entire stations were quarantined. The hospitals barely knew what sarin was, so they were treating thousands of patients for mass hysteria. The media vans who showed up refused to take people to the hospitals, despite a huge shortage of ambulance. In short, Tokyo wasn't ready for it, and they got hit hard.
When I imagine how all this went down, I obviously use Chicago as my template. In my understanding, this would be like 3 different people boarding the Red, Blue, and Green lines (which I take regularly) with the intent to kill commuters during the morning rush. The idea of being trapped in an El car with a nerve gas scares the shit out of me. Just one El car can fit 30 or more people on it during busy times. How could any Tokyo citizens, who depend on their mass transit even more than we do, feel right taking their trains again?
What is sarin gas? Sarin is a nerve agent, so it's fucking terrifying: - It can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. A concentrated vapor (in a train car, for example) can be deadly. - It inhibits cholinesterase, an enzyme that helps control your bodily functions. - Its most recognizable symptom is constricted pupils, and many people immediately go blind with contact. They then exhibit seizure-like symptoms, which untreated puts them in a coma. - In its purest form, a drop of sarin could kill an adult almost instantly. - It's estimated to be 500 times more toxic than cyanide. - The UN has classified it as a weapon of mass destruction. Considering these factors, it's miraculous that there were only 13 deaths amongst the 5,000 or so people under attack.
This was kind of like the Japanese equivalent of 9/11 in terms of national trauma. Why the hell aren't we talking about it? I can't believe we're not talking about this attack in the US, even now 17 years later. Maybe it was a topic in the 90s, but I'd never even heard of this event until I picked up this book. As an American, I feel ashamed of that. When people were sending anthrax to Tom Daschle post 9/11, were we thinking about Tokyo? I hope so.
Why should someone read this book? As Americans, we need to refocus our lens on terrorism and why it occurs. Murakami's essay "Blind Nightmare" strongly criticizes how ignorantly most Japanese people treated the attack as something done by a "lunatic fringe group," rather than a group of disillusioned regular people convinced their problems could be solved by religion.
The Us vs. Them mentality is alive and well in the US, and it definitely got worse after 9/11. Neither Murakami nor I intend to make apologies for people who commit violence to get their voices heard, but it is true that we create social conditions for these things to take place.(less)
**I received my copy through Goodreads First Reads.** If you love a little Japanese noir that's harder than Murakami, and takes a turn towards the edgi...more**I received my copy through Goodreads First Reads.** If you love a little Japanese noir that's harder than Murakami, and takes a turn towards the edginess of Battle Royale, this is a good one for you to check out. (less)