29 May 2011

Underground (Murakami Haruki)

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
by Murakami Haruki, translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel

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 fears, contradictions and dilemmas—and that all these factors had a place in the drama.

The drama took place on March 20, 1995. Five men, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, released sarin poison gas inside the trains of the Tokyo subway, killed a dozen people, and injured hundreds. Nine months after the incident, the novelist Haruki Murakami began to interview the victims in order to understand what actually happened.

Underground followed the template of Murakami's fiction: the story of ordinary men and women thrust in an abnormal situation. But it was a real nightmare happening to real people in the real world, unfolding as if in real time. He did what Gabriel García Márquez did in Clandestine in Chile—compress hours of interviews into a compelling narrative.

The narrative has two self-contained parts, divided into short sections focusing on one person and his part in the gas attack. The first part, titled "Underground", was translated by Alfred Birnbaum. It recounted the event from the victims' point of view. To balance the story the second part, "The Place That Was Promised", translated by Philip Gabriel, told of the stories of members and ex-members of the Aum cult. The first part was already a brilliant exploration of the outcome of terrorism; the second part was a glimpse into the minds of individuals who renounced the world and joined the religious cult.

In the first part, the victims and their relatives narrated the story one by one. They shared their personal backgrounds, where they came from and where they were born, their current occupation, the daily itinerary of their train rides, and what happened to them in the subway on the day they were exposed to sarin gas. For most of the victims, the attack had taken a permanent toll on their health. It had adversely affected their physical and mental constitutions. Many are still burdened by the aftereffects of sarin months after inhaling it.

The individual stories fitted well into Murakami's adopted journalistic framework to convey a macroscopic view of the nightmare. The story of the attack may have been predetermined; the outcome was all over the news. But here it was told naturally, without sensationalism, and yet several moments in the book would give one the scare. While some of Murakami's fiction was permeated with elements of science fiction and magic, the true story here stuck to the "truth". Ultimately, the truth was no less unbelievable or surreal, just like any surreal event in life.

The acknowledged influences in the composition of Underground were Studs Terkel and Bob Greene, but the form and structure itself was reminiscent of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's story "In a Grove". Several witnesses were asked in a kind of deposition to recount what happened on that day. The accumulation of the stories portrayed a kind of hell, a nightmare experienced in broad daylight, underground.

(Murakami was too entrenched in his subject to completely efface himself from the narrative. His strong opinions were shared in the prefaces to the two parts, in the brief introductory sections preceding each interviewee's account, and in his summary essays at the end of the two parts. In contrast to the oblique way with which he confronted the catastrophe of the Kobe earthquake in after the quake, this work of nonfiction tackled upfront the cruelty inflicted on an unsuspecting public.)


Just how deadly was sarin gas? Classified as a weapon of mass destruction and banned by the United Nations in 1993, a tiny drop of it could kill a person on the spot. Depending on the amount of exposure, sarin can lead to contraction of the eye pupils, convulsions, coma, difficulty in breathing, disturbed sleep and nightmares, extreme sensitivity to light, foaming at the mouth, high fevers, loss of consciousness, loss of memory, nausea and vomiting, paralysis, post-traumatic stress disorder, respiratory ailments, seizures, uncontrollable trembling, vision problems (temporary or permanent), and death.

(One victim suggested that increasing materialism was partly to blame as catalyst to this attack. Capitalism as a precondition to insensitivity, the loss of moral compass, leading to complacency, selfishness, and cruelty. This critique was not really too pronounced in the book although one can frame this latent argument from the way the narrative repeatedly presented the attack as an interruption of the subway passengers' travel to their work. Something of a Marxist idea about this interruption of the mode of production was similar to the way countless crimes against women in Roberto Bolaño's 2666 can be seen as an indictment of the maquiladora economy in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.)

In the first part, Murakami questioned 35 individuals and elicited from them a sense of what it felt like to be in the middle of a tragedy. It was obvious that he had copious amounts of sympathy for the victims. In interview after interview, he introduced a new face, a new victim, someone with not just a unique injury but a new perspective on what transpired on that day. The victims were telling and re-telling the terrorist act for the reader, over and over.

   ... I walked up the stairs to the ticket barrier and went above ground. Suddenly I met with the most amazing sight. People were dropping like flies all over the place.
   I'd taken the third car from the back and had absolutely no idea what was happening at the front of the platform. I was just heading up above ground, swearing under my breath like everyone else, when right before my eyes I saw three people fall down and foam at the mouth, their arms and legs twitching. "What the hell's going on here?" I thought.
   Closest to me was this man whose limbs were quivering, he was trembling all over and foaming at the mouth, having some kind of seizure. I just looked at him and my jaw dropped. I knew it was serious and rushed over to ask him what had happened. I could see he needed immediate care. That's when someone who was still walking by said, "Him foaming like that is dangerous, you'd better stuff some newspaper in his mouth." So we both helped him. After that all these exhausted people kept coming up from the ticket barrier below, then dropping to the ground. I couldn't work out what had happened. Some of the people sitting down suddenly just keeled over flat out.

What would be the point of replaying for the reader the above scene in different ways, repeatedly drilling the same thing in his mind? All these individual stories, what do they say? Do they add up to something coherent, something that can be grasped?

One was struck by a variety of responses to the attack: anguish, complacency, bitterness, fear, trauma. Seen from many angles, the gas attack approached a certain magnitude of reality for the reader, just as it must have had for the novelist who personally talked and listened to the victims, shaping and re-shaping the narrative in his mind.

In the act of reading, the packets of sarin were being punctured dozens of times, the deadly liquid spreading on the floor, releasing the potent smell and downing passenger after passenger. But in the end it did not feel gratuitous or redundant to me. The stories were reliving the individual responses, reactions, and sufferings; yet collectively they were pointing to something more troubling, more arresting. We were not learning something from one tragedy, one nightmare, or one moment of hell. We were reading about many disasters, many parallel nightmares, many hells that materialized simultaneously.

"Overwhelming violence" is Murakami's description of catastrophes in Japan, which included the 1995 Kobe earthquake and may as well include the recent March earthquake and the resulting tsunami and the nuclear accidents. Hate and violence and natural calamities are being staged in an uncertain world. It is a world where one moment you're walking and standing free, and the next moment you are tipping over the train platform, the world turning upside down, literally darkening in front of you.

The blow was very hard but that doesn't mean one ought to give up. What the survivors can do is describe what memory can still describe. And what the writer can do is seek out the witnesses, listen to their stories, and set on paper testimonials of suffering. Murakami accomplished what he set out to do: describe a person's life, family, hopes and fears, contradictions, and dilemmas. In addition, "Underground" was a catalogue of crimes.

What impelled the novelist to write about the gas attack was his desire to know how this kind of event could happen in Tokyo, one of the safest cities in the world. A terrorist act by a religious group, undertaken in the name of salvation, flew in the face of everything we hold sacred. Logic and common sense broke down. In the transcribed interviews in Underground, belated words after the brutal fact, Murakami allowed the victims to assert their humanities in a dangerous world. He wrote a memorial for human fortitude, a manifesto against irrationality.

(Posted in early form in Project Dogeared; Chemical structure of sarin nerve gas from Wikipedia; Images of rabbit's eye from J Med CBR Def.)


  1. I ve this down to read later in year ,I like that you compared it to the Marquez book I like that and think books that walk line between fiction and non fiction can be great ,this is a subject I know little aboput so look forward to finding out more than the half remembered news reports of the time ,all the best stu

  2. Highly recommended, Stu. I'm supposed to post the second part of my review today (about the interviews with the cult members), but I accidentally deleted it and blogger *auto-saved* (I hate this function) the draft with an empty post. Ha! And it was a long post already. Grrr.

    Anyway, the comparison with Marquez lies only with the method of a long interview, transcription, and major cuts in the editing. I've read elsewhere that this Underground translation *abridged* the book, so there may be something more lost there.

    It's the finest book of Murakami I've read. The 10 works of his fiction I've sampled don't compare. They're a mixed bunch. This is the 'real thing', in more than the literal sense of the phrase.

  3. I'm really pleased you like this as It's probably my favourite Murakami & one of my earliest posts , Ive also been surprised at how many HM fans hadn't read it . Also agree with Akutagawa comparisons, the multiple versions of the same event & what also amazed, that although predominantly a series of interviews It's still obviously a Murakami book.

  4. Well, Gary, I had an inkling I'd like this based on your great review. One gets the feeling HM was born to write it.