Underground by Haruki Murakami | review

  • Title: Underground
  • Published: 1997
  • Author: Haruki Murakami
  • Original language: Japanese
  • Genre: Non-fiction

In spite of the perpetrators’ intentions, the Tokyo gas attack left only twelve people dead, but thousands were injured and many suffered serious after-effects. Murakami interviews the victims to try and establish precisely what happened on the subway that day. He also interviews members and ex-members of the doomsdays cult responsible, in the hope that they might be able to explain the reason for the attack and how it was that their guru instilled such devotion in his followers. (source: goodreads.com)

Context:

In 1984, Shoko Asahara started a cult known as Aum Shinrikyo (translates to ‘Supreme Truth’). His studies of Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism made him believe that he was ‘the enlightened one’, the only one after Buddha, and that the world would end soon. He soon gathered young followers who were willing to give up all their fortune to Asahara. In 1995, there were about 40.000 followers. Shoko Asahara used the money he (the cult) gathered from followers (there was also an entry fee) and from the businesses they run to make sarin, a poison gas that affects the nerves and muscles. Sarin was first used in 1930 by Nazi scientists, and it since became a chemical weapon.

On March 20, 1995, five selected Aum members released sarin gas on three Tokyo subway lines, from packages they punctured with the tips of umbrellas, and walked away. The liquid in the packages quickly turned into gas, and commuters started to feel ill. Most of them recount runny nose and eyes. Several passengers noticed the punctured bags and thought that was the cause of the smell and their ill state, but they didn’t know what was in them. The subway staff didn’t know how to deal with the situation, as they would carry out the bags containing the sarin, and wipe the floor of the subway with newspaper and let the train continue on its route. Twelve people died that day, but a lot more suffered from side-effects. Murakami interviewed 35 victims of the gas attack and 9 members and ex-members of Aum, in hope of capturing the event from the different perspectives: those powerfully affected, those who easily escaped but still had some affter-effects; Aum members who believe the attack was justifiable and those who still find it hard to believe it was Aum’s hand who did this.

 My thoughts on the book:

In my naivity, I never heard of the Tokyo Gas Attack, this book being my first contact with the event. After reading Murakami’s book, I looked more into the whole affair and I was shocked, for many reasons. It is hard to understand how a group of people or a single person believe they can decide on other people’s lives, and not suffer from some mental illness. But then again, cults are not something new to the face of the Earth, and we all know how easy it has been over the course of history for large groups of people to be manipulated in assuming certain beliefs (the examples are too many, and all around us). The point of the book isn’t to judge, it is to present to the reader several points of view. I also don’t believe that it’s necessarily intended for the reader to form an opinion at the end of the book (although it’s impossible not to), but to realize the impact of the gas attack and realize the media usually manipulates reality too. Most of the Aum members interviewed had no idea of such attack, more so, they explain how many of the things that the media tells us about them was false. They weren’t all yes men, they weren’t all blindly following the leader. Some, if not most of them had doubts about the beliefs of the cult and some practices, and they questioned them on several occasions. They were not brain washed. Not all of them, at least.

Another media flaw was that they failed to elaborate what actually happened, and eventually they ‘forgot’ about it. Murakami believes that people have to remember what happened and Japanese people have to aknowledge the incident, not just let the authorities deal with it. It is an ugly memory, but it’s also part of their history.

I find Murakami’s book to be moving and heartbreaking, as the testimonies recount so many horrific stories. What I love about the book is that more than teaching us about the 1995 gas attack, it depicts the Japanese culture and the common Tokyo commuter. You, as the reader, learn about their values, their views on life and their routine. It’s an interesting look inside the Japanese people.

From my point of view, Murakami reached the goal he intended with writing this book. It was a difficult experience,reading this book, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot from reading Underground. I would recommend it to everyone.

4/5 stars

Have you read it? What are your thoughts?

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