Underground: My First Murakami

Did you know that there is an article on Wikipedia entitled, "List of people claimed to be Jesus"?    I suppose I shouldn't be excessively surprised; Wikipedia is the Amazon of information, containing tons and tons and tons of stuff while simultaneously engendering mistrust or negative feelings.  Personally, I don't think Amazon is the devil--especially since I just ordered, received, and used the new OPI Glitter-Off Base Coat (yes! This stuff is the best!) when Ulta didn't have it--but they do have questionable marketing tactics, engage in number-fudging, create weird websites to support themselves, and have pretty bad factory conditions.  So, like pretty much every other Western conglomerate.

But I digress: Wikipedia.  I found the Jesus List by perusing the article on Aum Shrinrikyo, a cult that  was started in Japan by a man named Chizuo Matsumoto, later called Shoko Asahara.  If the name rings a bell (however faint in your mind), it's because Aum perpetrated the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in 1995.  I was in elementary school at the time, but I remember it, vaguely.  I never thought much about it, even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 or the 2004 Madrid train bombings.  However, I found this book, Underground, on Goodreads when I was adding some of Murakami's fiction to my to-read list.  Underground seemed the least threatening and most accessible, so I started with it.

To be honest, I don't think you get to hear much of Murakami in this work, apart from his very brief analysis at the end of the first part.  However, I couldn't imagine the book being more powerful any other way than it is right now.  Murakami recounts stories told to him by victims of the attack, and in the second part, written later, he interviews former members of the Aum group (none of whom were directly implicated in the attack of 1995).

Some readers dislike the repetitive nature of the first set of interviews: they do follow the same pattern because each interviewee is recounting what he or she did on the day of the attack.  Each person's voice is distinct, and their descriptions of their initial reaction to finding out there was a problem on the subway often match up--it's eerie.  This is a wonderful, thoughtful glimpse into a culture very different from modern America.  The people in this book stayed on the trains or in the stations even after experiencing frightening symptoms (like, you know, going practically blind) out of a sense of duty.  They had to get to work; they had to stay at work; their symptoms didn't matter; other people were worse off--these are sentiments repeated by many of the interviewees.  People who later had to remain in the hospital for days simply walked off of the sarin-soaked train cars and went to work.  Because that was their routine.  That was simply how things were.

One striking point that really drove home this rather intense concept of routine was the precision with which victims recounted which subway car they boarded and at which door.  I commuted in Paris for about 9 months.  All those months using the Métro, I didn't care about boarding a specific car or standing in a specific place or anything.  I just needed to get to work.  If there was an opening in a car, I'd take it.  Honestly, I don't think I ever planned my route so minutely as to board the same car every day.

Granted, the Métro is very different from the Tokyo subway (after all, Japan is the country that employs people to smush other people into trains just so they all fit.  I'm not normally claustrophobic, but I don't think I could ever ride one of those trains), but the mindset of these commuters was utterly opposite of my own.  And I loved that.  I loved getting inside of their heads and seeing how their upbringing and how their culture shaped how they viewed work, family, love, and their own health.

The victims' stories share a strange sense of detachment.  One man, Mitsuo Arima, said, "I was taking a hay-fever remedy at the time, so I thought [the darkness of vision] might be a reaction to the drug.  It was different from my usual, so maybe this was a side effect.  But everything was still dark when I reached my office ... It was still a toss-up between hay-fever and sarin."  When I get sick, I automaticlly assume the worst.  Many of the sarin victims attributed their lethargy, dizziness, and loss of vision to "having a bad day" or stress.  This was after they knew they had been on trains contaminated with sarin.  I do believe that they convinced themselves of this because they did not want to leave work or whatever engagement they had that day.

I readily acknowledge that my conviction of what I would have done has been molded by the events of my lifetime.  Watching the terrorist attacks of September 11th and living in a country whose laws and procedures have been irrevocably changed by that has made me extraordinarily sensitive to odd things.  Strange bags at my workplace?  Call the police.  That is my gut reaction.  The Tokyo passengers didn't have that point of reference--they saw their country as peaceful and just not the kind of place where "things like that" happened.  So personally, this is a really fascinating book.  I see how people thought and reacted in a time period very different from my own.

The stories of the ex-Aum members also grabbed my attention, but for different reasons.  It was fascinating to see how each person exhibited many of the same thought patterns and tendencies--for example, a loathing for secular life, frustration with violence, suicidal thoughts, and social withdrawal.  They found solace in this cult because it offered seclusion.  For those wishing to die, it promised the end of the world.  As Murakami points out in his analysis, "Shoka Asahara was talented enough to impose his rehashed narrative on people (who for the most part came looking for just that)."

The concept of Self and narrative are strong themes in the book.  Many of the victims and the ex-Aum talk about Self and either losing the Self, bringing the Self to enlightenment, or making peace with the Self.  I suppose this corresponds with Freud's ego, or perhaps what Western countries would call a soul.  The inner person.  Murakami talks about how as we grow and live, the Self begins to describe a narrative.  It is a simultaneous dream and living of that dream.  We imagine and we create our narratives, then we live them, and in living them, we imagine them.  It's very circular but also very poetic.

I wish that the book had been structured so that Murakami's commentary fell at the end, instead of the middle, but I assume that since it is his work, he deemed it acceptable to publish in this way.

The one very small thing that irked me a bit was how the concepts of cults, religion, and fanaticism were handled.  The reader learns very little about Aum itself, and hears snippets of its beliefs, but not all of them.  Presumably, Murakami's Japanese audience would be more up to speed with these concepts.  When interviewing the former Aum, "I decided to be a more active participant.  Sometimes, for instance, the conversation began to swerve too much in the direction of religious dogma, which I felt was inappropriate."  I find this technique very odd, especially in a book where the main perpetrators of the violence belonged to a nominally religious organization.  If you are going to interview ex-members, why not let them talk about what they believed?  Who is Murakami to decide what is and is not appropriate?  That sentence is really saying, "I felt uncomfortable, so I made them stop."

Murakami and his interviewees talk more about spirituality and intense feelings that specific beliefs, which, as I understand it (very poorly indeed) is rather common in Japan--the majority do not profess to belong to any particular religion.  Yet, mysticism crops up a good deal, and it seems that the Japanese society did not reject such things outright.  Levitation and out of body experiences and so forth.  But that is a very, very small thing compared to the sheer power of the whole work.

I didn't think that a book comprised of witness narratives would be so utterly compelling and thought-provoking.  I kept asking myself, "What would I have done?  Would I have gone to work?  Would I have gone to the hospital?  Would I be angry afterwards?"  Many of the interviewees gave answers opposite to those that I would have, and that was really illuminating.

I'm really shocked that this book isn't more widely recommended.  I've been talking about it a lot at work and recommending it to my coworkers.  After having read a little Murakami, I feel that now I might be able to take the plunge into a big Murakami!

Highly recommended.


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