This is a work of non-fiction, that presents, with novelistic readability, accounts from the victims of the March 1995 Sarin gas attack that was perpe...moreThis is a work of non-fiction, that presents, with novelistic readability, accounts from the victims of the March 1995 Sarin gas attack that was perpetrated upon the Tokyo Subway by members of the Aum Shinrikyo 'new-religion,' or cult. The American edition is highly abridged, and along account of the victims of the gas attack, it includes Murakami's follow-up work, which dealt with the memories of several former members of the Aum cult.
Although journalistic in the sense that the book recounts, from many perspectives, an historical event, and although it is presented without much social commentary (Murakami refused to take the spotlight from the victims by interjecting his own, strong voice), the work fits very well into the novelist's oeuvre, mainly because it is thematically congruent with his own fascination with "the underground" (literally and figuratively).
These are strong portraits. The ones drawn for the American edition are balanced: there are subway workers, salarymen, receptionists, entrepreneurs; the incidental and barely affected as well as those who were tragically injured, or are loved-ones of the dead; some are angry, some almost shrug-off the events. Murakami's stated aim was to provide an outlet for the victims - the media (rightly, from a commercial point of view) focused primarily on the sensational aspect of the perpetrators: they were a highly-educated elite (many from Tokyo University, some scientists, doctors, etc.)whose commitment to the personality cult of Shoko Ashahara, the founder of a Buddhist/eschatological ('doomsday') religion, tended to overshadow the very real human damage done.
I knew of the events before I read the book. I had read a 20 page brief of Aum and the two Sarin gas attacks. The statistics, especially when tallied against other, recent terrorist acts, don't sound that alarming: 13 dead, several hundred wounded. 8 people were murdered at a hair-salon in CA last week, and that was a minor event. 72 by a lone gunman in Norway. Without any sort of description of the "several hundred" wounded, one can, and does tend to diminish whatever that human toll is. This is what Murakami is fighting, the tendency to say that this was an isolated, minor event...that those who survived survived...that 13 dead is nothing compared to the many thousands exposed who could have died but didn't.
The stories share a similar arc. These were people pursuing their own interest and completely absorbed in their lives. Most were trying to get to work on Monday morning, to attend to the business left off on the previous holiday weekend, to get to meetings on time, perhaps boarding - entirely incidentally, without any sort of destiny involved - the Sarin besotted trains, only to see their lives suddenly, drastically and senselessly upended.
Sarin is a nerve agent that interferes with acetylcholine receptors in the body. This chemical is a type of neuro-transmitter responsible for conveying messages to muscles; Sarin will affect choliesterase levels in the body (depleting it), essentially causing protracted muscular contractions, leading, eventually, to paralysis and death (through asphyxiation). Because Aum failed to develop a means of aerosolizing the chemical, they were forced to dissolve it in a volatile solvent, deploy it as a liquid, and let natural evaporation spread the vapors. Luckily, this meant that most subway riders were not exposed to the chemical, and even those riding on the cars carrying the agent were mostly limited to minor physical symptoms, which included dilated pupils, headaches (both sometimes lasting for months), respiratory trouble, a hay-fever like runny nose, fainting, etc.
As I said, most victims suffered only minor physical complaints. Many were seen at the hospital; some had an antidote (atropine) administered, other's were simply given an IV drip for a period of hours and then walked. What is surprising is that many, even AFTER they were aware of an attack on the subway, and even though they had experienced symptoms themselves, chose to resume their normal routing as if nothing had happened, continuing on to work and only much later seeking treatment. There are several clues to Japanese society manifested in the behavior of these disparate personal statements: 1) many did not associate their personal symptoms of distress with the attack because there was an overwhelming feeling that Japan was 'safe,' isolated from the types of attack that are common in Europe and the Middle-East. 2) Tokyo is so dense, and the "salaryman" attitude so ingrained, that many refused to see a problem even though their fellow riders were collapsing, and worried more about getting to work on time and satisfying that social demand than the one begging that they act the good-Samaritan 3)Upon , many victims still refused to personally blame any single aspect of Japanese society for allowing Aum to flourish as a state-recognized religion, and many even refused to show anger towards individual perpetrators, somehow classifying the attack as an aberration so great that causal links to the environment and society as a whole could not be recognized 4) No one seems to have asked, "Why me?" It's a strange brand of fatalism that consigns chance personal tragedy to historical aberration, allowing the individual to avoid asking this question. It's as if everyone was thinking, "this weird thing happened. I just happened to be on this train because I got off at the last stop to buy milk. there is no greater significance. it's not worth thinking about." In America, people would be suffering great personal crises trying to figure out why THEY were attacked. This may have something to do with both the structuring of society and that of religion.
I mentioned earlier that thematically this work fits in with Murakami's earlier novelistic concerns. There has always been a strong current throughout his works dealing with the underground: in Hard-Boiled Wonderland there's a whole society living underground. In Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Toru Watanabe has some of his most intense epiphanies while sequestered in a well. 1Q84 begins with the descent from a freeway exit into an entirely new plane of existence. Murakami has admitted in interviews that his method of writing is like that: he can focus so deeply that he retreats into his own mental underground, his unconscious, and is able to channel that and bring it up to the surface as his fiction. Underground, as a non-fiction book, deals of course with the literal underground of the Tokyo subway system, and the figurative underground of a secretive cult, but also with the undercurrents of society that ripple up, seismically almost, and shake society from underneath. These stories are from below the reach of the media, would have stayed underground had not this work brought them up. I think the fascination for Murakami is this: here is something strange, from the dark, that emerges into the city and light from beneath the city and its life. It bubbles up and is unreal, aberrant, unacceptable. As soon at it hits light, it begins to evaporate and disperse. What is left is something irrevocably challenged and changed, something that was hidden was briefly revealed and then retreated. I think he's trying to capture that and record it before it retreats completely - if only so that others can be aware and spot it the next time it tries to emerge.
The second book is also quite revealing and tells a different aspect of the story. This time, former members of Aum Shinrikyo are interviewed and give their take on what the religion meant to them. Some have tired to re-integrate completely with society, some try to actively 'atone.' Others are more ambivalent - Aum gave them something that filled a hole in their life, that squared with their worldview and allowed them to realize themselves more fully. When everything fell apart, these people were hurt, too, although in a different way from those injured by Sarin. They were spiritually injured, and it has been difficult for them to completely abandon something they gave themselves to so fully. Many of these portraits are also sympathetic (none of the interviews were with the actual perpetrators. Aside from the technical difficulties in gaining that type of interview, I think Murakami wanted to show another side of the pain that Aum caused, again rather than further focusing on the sensational aspects of the case).
I wish I could write more, but it's already almost 5am. I'll stop here. The American edition of this book isn't too long. Maybe 300-400 pages. You can read it in a weekend. It's quite compelling, and I would recommend it. Even though I read primarily fiction, this was an easy work to get into, but the subject is so compelling as to practically FORCE interest. Highly recommended. (less)