…I wanted, if at all possible, to get away from any formula; to recognize that each person on the subway that morning had a face, a life, a family, hopes and fear, contradictions and dilemmas – and that all these factors had a place in the drama.Underground – The Tokyo Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a collection of interviews with victims of the 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subways. These include subway workers who were injured while doing their jobs, many of whom suffered permanent health damage; ordinary people on their way to work; and relatives of some of those who were seriously injured or killed. This Vintage edition also includes a second part, which was originally published as a separate book. It’s called “The place that was promised” and it’s a collection of interviews with members and ex-members of Aum, the cult that was behind the attack.(From the introduction)
I’m very glad that I picked up the complete edition, as the second part makes Underground an even more interesting read. I loved the interviews themselves – and I was surprised that they were so varied, even though people are describing essentially the same event. But the way each individual reacts is always different, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. Also, I loved Murakami’s thoughts and comments just as much. I knew I loved him as a novelist, but now I also know I love the way he thinks. He’s very human, sympathetic and perceptive, and he refuses to oversimplify complex issues.
I picked up this book for Amy’s Newsweek’s 50 Books For Our Time project: the goal is to have bloggers read from the list and think about whether or not the book they picked is particularly relevant for our time. My short answer for Underground is yes, yes, YES. But worry not, I’ll give you the long answer too.
I’ll start with what is perhaps a minor point: Underground is relevant because it is, among other things, a study of the psychological effect of violence in an affluent, peaceful country. I never agree with people who say that humankind is Morally Decaying and that the world is a lot more violent now than it was a few centuries ago. If we are more violent, it’s because we now have the technology—such as nuclear or chemical weapons—to commit greater acts of violence; not because we used to have more scruples.
But when people say that violence has a greater psychological impact now, I suppose I can see their point, though there's no way we can tell for sure how people in previous centuries reacted to cataclysms. But yes, I'll admit that in certain parts of the world, we have grown used to safety. Death is no longer commonplace. We have learned to ignore it, and so when something like this happens, it jolts us out of our perception of safety—and this has a strong personal and social impact.
The second and main reason why I think Underground is an important book is because Murakami does all he can to question the “Us” versus “Them” mentality that followed the attacks (and oh, how I love him for it). In his longer essay-chapters, he says that something like this should not been looked at as an oddity. People’s immediate reaction is to demonize the perpetrators and to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the event. And understandable though this may be, it’s not helpful. To do so actually stops us from looking for the causes of these acts of violence. As monstrous as the gas attack was, if we want to understand it and try make sure it doesn’t happen again, we need to do a lot more than just say, “they did it because they are monsters”.
I believe that the same goes for every terrorist attack, every school shooting, every occasion in which a person does the unthinkable and innocent lives are lost as a result. We recoil from even trying to understand what might have motivated them, but nothing ever happens without a context. And we are part of that context too.
In other words, the shock dealt to Japanese society by Aum and the gas attack has still to be effectively analysed, the lessons have yet to be learned. Even now, having finished interviewing the victims, I can’t simply file away the gas attack, saying “After all, this was merely an extreme and exceptional crime committed by an isolated lunatic fringe.” And what am I to think when our collective memory of the affair is looking more and more like a bizarre comic strip or an urban myth?Other opinions:
If we are to learn anything from this tragic event, we must look at what happened all over again, from different angles, in different ways. Something tells me things will only get worse if we don’t wash it out of our metabolism. It’s all too easy to say “Aum was evil”. Nor does saying “This had nothing to do with ‘evil’ or ‘insanity’ prove anything either. Yet the spell cast by these phrases is almost impossible to break, the whole emotionally charged “Us” versus “Them” vocabulary has been done to death.
No, what we need, it seems, are words coming from another direction, new words for a new narrative. Another narrative to purify this narrative.
…we need to realize that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they’re not disadvantages; they’re not eccentrics. They are the people who live average lives (and maybe from the outside, more than average lives) in my neighbourhood. And in yours.
Maybe they think about things a little too seriously. Perhaps there’s some pain they’re carrying around inside. They’re not good at making their feelings known to others and are somewhat troubled. They can’t find the means to suitably express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. That might very well be me. It might be you.
Thyme for Tea
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