Dec 7, 2009

Underground by Haruki Murakami

Underground by Haruki Murakami

…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.
(From the introduction)
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.

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.

Favourite passages:
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?
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.
Other opinions:
Thyme for Tea
Dolce Bellezza

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. I so agree with the importance of understanding the conceptual trap of demonizing the perpetrators. I have always objected to calling Germans who participated in the Holocaust "Nazis" for the same reason. It makes it seem as though they were not actually people but some sort of monsters and we people don't have to worry that we could ever act or think like that.

    Great review!

  2. Another excellent review. I appreciate both your short and long answers to the question "is this book relevant?"

  3. I will have to add this to my list of must read sounds like it is excellent! Thank you for a great review that makes me want to know more!

  4. To the top of my TBR this goes! I love Murakami for so many reasons and I can't wait to check this out. Excellent review :)

  5. Must read Murakami someday. Must not be intimidated. Must read Murakami someday...

    (if I just keep telling myself, will I become less intimidated?)

  6. Great review, Nymeth. This sounds fascinating and I completely agree that it's always important to understand what's behind such horrific violence.

  7. We do fall so easily into the "us" vs. "them" after events like these. I suppose it is a way of distancing ourselves from the act and making ourselves feel more secure? But you are right that it doesn't ultimately help understand the root causes. I remember this whole event a blip on the news. Thanks for your review for bringing it back to my attention. I'd be fascinated to hear what the people in the cult behind the attack think.

  8. I'm so glad you read and reviewed this, Ana. Someone mentioned this book one time in the comments at Carl's, and I was immediately intrigued. But I'd forgotten all about it. Frankly, it sounds even more fascinating than I'd imagined. And I'm really thinking that this book would be a good way to get over my Murakami fear. ;)

  9. There is so much that you talk about in this book that is important. I've read volumes of books on WWII, and also about 9/11 and they all inspire me to try to understand the other side. They firmly believe in their mission, and believe they are right. We firmly believe we are right. Not everyone can be right. There is so much more to it than us versus them.

    I also hear alot of people say that we are so much more violent now than in the past, but I don't really buy it. Anyone who reads historical fiction or even the Bible would agree. It's just different kinds of violence, but it has always been there. We just have more high-tech methods now that make mass destruction a little easier.

  10. Wow - I didn't realise how powerful his books were. I have just picked up my first one to read After Dark, but this one will definitely go on my list. A very powerful, thought provoking review.

  11. It seems like Murakami is a fabulous author. i have yet to read anything by him, but this seems like a very interesting read.

  12. Like She, I've never read anything by Murakami before, either, though this sounds more interesting to me than his fiction. And very, very heavy. What a great idea for a reading project by Amy!

  13. This sounds really interesting. I think my son would be very interested in reading it.

  14. Sound like a very powerful and thought provoking read.

    Like Amanda I really must read some Murakami some day. I have no excuse either, I have two of his books on my shelves!

  15. Great review, Nymeth! Finally there's a book on the list that lives up the 50 Books for Our Times title.

  16. Haruki Murakami is such a talented author! I haven't read all of his books yet but the few I had read I had enjoyed them all.

    This one sounds like a powerful read. Great review, Nymeth!

  17. You wrote such an articulate and thoughtful review, Nymeth (as usual!). Two things struck me most forcefully when I read this work:
    1.) The strength and stamina of the Japanese was amazing! They felt guilty taking the day off of work after having been gassed; it was so opposite my experience of encountering teachers who want to stay at home on every whim.

    2.) I really was intrigued with the perspective of the "terrorists" themselves. They were looking for something, in an empty and meaningless world, and not having found it they turned to a crazy leader. To me, it just reminded me of how much I need my faith to give me a purpose and a reason; otherwise, I'm sure I'd feel just as lost as they did.

    Finally, I was interested in what Murakami would do with a piece of nonfiction. His fiction is so...bizarre? Don't get me wrong, I love it, but this is certainly a whole different venue for him. One I'm not used to seeing him write.

  18. I'm so dense, Ana! I never realized that this was nonfic! That it was a series of interviews. I want to read it so bad now! I had heard of it before, but I thought that it was fiction based on the event. Murakami is wonderful...sounds like he's done a bit of everything. I've only read two of his books (Norwegian Wood and After Dark) but I really, REALLY enjoy him!

  19. Why people do the things they did (monstrous or not) has always been a question I like to ask myself. This book sounds just like one that I would read. It goes deeper than just scratching the surface. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Ana, and this is definitely something that I want to read. It's a book by Murakami!

  20. This review gave me chills. I'm going to go out and find this book. Maybe I will ask for it for Christmas. It sounds like it deals, directly and indirectly, with so many of the questions surrounding violence that I struggle with myself. I have yet to read any Murakami, but perhaps this will be my first.

  21. I have a book by this author somewhere and I've had it for a couple of years now but I still haven't had the time to try it. Inspiring review Nymeth!

  22. I love Murakami, but I worry that this one would be too scary. I think the reality of death on the underground is too much for me and I'd be scared to get on a train if I read this one. I have been avoiding it - do you think I'm right to do so?

  23. I can see this book is going to have to go on my wish list. It sounds like such an important book.

    Your mentioning of the two parts, one being a collection of interviews with the victims and the other of interviews with those behind the attacks reminds me of Jean Hatzfeld's Machete Season and Life Laid Bare, I think it's called about the massacre in Rwanda several years ago. Hatzfeld is a journalist who interviewed those who participated in the killings in the first book and the victims in the other. It really brings home just what you said Murakami does with this book, in particular about those who killed their neighbors and friends. Machete Season was such a powerful book in my mind.

    Thank you for this wonderful review, Nymeth.

  24. ah, great review! sounds like a book with a perspective I would really appreciate. Thanks for fulfilling your challenge commitment. :)

  25. I'm more interested in Murakami's nonfiction than his fiction, so this is definitely on my TBR list.

  26. It sounds like a powerful and scary book. I haven't had much luck with Murakami's fiction, but maybe this one would work better for me. Very interesting review, I don't know much about this incident, but it sounds like something that I need to find out about.

  27. Now that I know there is a version with two parts, I'll make sure to pick up this one. I'm really intrigued by Murakami's nonfiction. And I really love reading about these "fringe groups" which seem to be more and more prevalent.

  28. I've been meaning to read this book forever! *sigh*

  29. Jill: exactly!

    Care, thank you!

    Caitie: I hope you find it as interesting and rewarding as I did :)

    Lu: Thank you! I love him too <3

    Amanda: There's no reason to be intimidated! He's really accessible, promise. Though I must warn you that his novels can be quite graphic in that way I know you dislike. There's a scene in Kafka on the Shore that...*shudders* I loved the novel regardless, though.

    Meghan: It really is - more and more as it becomes more commonplace.

    Kathleen: That could be the reason, yes. But in the end it makes us all less secure.

    Debi: You'd better read Norwegian Wood soon, or else I'll lock you in a basement with it ;)

    Sandy: Exactly - there is a lot more to it, a whole socio-cultural system within each decisions with tragic consequences are made. And that has always been the case.

    Toni, thank you!

    Vivienne: This is a bit different from anything else he's done because it's interviews, but he does explore violence and its context quite a bit in his fiction.

    She: Read him! Read him soon!

    Aarti: His fiction is awesome too, though! I promise!

    Kathy, I hope he likes it!

    Bart: Well then, what are you waiting for? :P

    heidenkind: Those lists are always a bit random I find, but this one definitely does!

    Melody: So have I...he's sneaked his way into my list of favourite authors :P

    Bellezza, thanks! I noticed what you said about people's sense of duty and devotion to their work as well. That some were reluctant to go to the hospital at all really amazed me!

    Chris: You're not dense! Like Bellezza was saying, one wouldn't expect him to write non-fic.

    Alice: Yes, that was exactly why I found it such a rewarding read!

    Kiirstin: It does deal with them, but sadly it doesn't find that many answers - then again, when dealing with a topic like this, it's nearly impossible to come up with answers without oversimplifying things.

    Ladytink: I hope you do try it soon - he's amazing.

    Jackie: It IS scary, but at the same time most of the people he interviewed describe what happened with a sort of...clinical distance that makes it easier to bear, you know?

    Wendy: The Jean Hatzfeld books sound absolutely amazing - thank you.

    Amy, thank you for hosting!

    Bybee: Now I really want to get my hands on his book about running. I'm not really interested in running, but, this being Murakami, I bet he'll make me be.

    Zibilee: I think people who aren't fans of his fiction could definitely still find much of interest here!

    Lena: I'm not completely sure, but I *think* it was only in Japan that they were published separately. He says he was afraid of wounding people's feelings by also including the "other side" when the incident was still so recent.

    Mee: It's never too late :P

  30. Superb review that explores the psychological effect and the societal dissect. Here's my review link back to yours:

    Glad you think it's an important book because I really do believe it to be too!

  31. An excellent review of this really impressive book. I have to admit that I am usually not a big Murakami fan, but Underground shows him as a very thoughtful, human, respectful, empathic person that gives the survivors a voice and a face. The interviews in the first part are somehow repetitive, but nevertheless it was amazing how the different interview partners gain a strong individuality on just a few pages. My own review:


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