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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Review - Haruki Murakami - UNDERGROUND

The book was a surprise for me. I expected a story and instead got a collection of recollections and views of various people affected both directly and indirectly by the infamous Tokyo Gas Attacks on the subway. Whilst reading it, it sounds a bit surreal and a little bit sci fiction like, but then you sit up and realize that this is an account of what actually happened and in the first person itself so that there is nothing imaginary about it or it is not someone's imagination going haywire at all.

The stories are personal and very down to earth. The people involved are your everyday clerk, workman, driver, and railway attendant. There are no high flyers here or anyone whom one cannot identify with.

The stories deal with those who were mildly effected both physically and mentally, those who are still emotionally distraught even though the events in question took place in March 1995. The deaths were as a journalist bluntly put it "only twelve" but the effects it has had on Japanese society as a whole have been immense.

The society which brought about the attacks - a doomsday cult - and its members who never showed the slightest remorse for what they did is also a highlight of this
story. It shows also what brainwashing can do and what indoctrination is all about
particularly as most members who carried out the attack were highly skilled, educated
professionals whom one would never dream of behaving in such a ruthless manner.

This subway attack is considered as one of the gravest tragedies in post war Japan put alongside the Kobe earthquake. One can then only imagine what the Japanese themselves thought of this Aum cult which brought about this tragedy. Also what is strange is that there seems to be a great deal of reticence on the part of those who took part in the interviews and who were thus the ones directly affected, to actually point a finger at the authorities and declare that this or that could have been done better. Is this some kind of Japanese way of not "losing face" to outsiders and to keep the story well within the family?? There are lots of questions that Murakami brings out but these questions are not actually answered and one wonders where should one go for an actual yes or no answer.

The interviews also include members of the cult themselves who seem restrained and lethargic in the extreme. The ones who were articulate either did not seem to realize how violent the Aum cult was devolving into, or knew and knew they were helpless in the bigger scheme of things to do anything about it. The followers also seemed to think that they were on a higher spiritual level than "ordinary folk" and that the religion propounded by Asahara would be not understood by the majority. Those who knew where the cult was heading did not seem to have any idea of how they could even restrict the damage or curtail it to some degree. Most of the followers were drawn to a kind of utopia which they imagined would allow them to live their lives the way they wanted to. The disasters that followed their actions created a tragedy which Japanese have to live with always.

It also highlights that those who join cults are not those who are strange or stressed out. The ones in this particular cult were articulate, educated, highly professional skilled people - people who may have been more sensitive to those around them and the world around them and found something lacking in their own lives and hoped to fill that void with the Aum cult. This is the danger. Those people are just normal ordinary folks and though this cult seems dead and buried the danger lives just beneath the surface still.

This was a very different book in my quest for Japanese authors! It was not a light read. I still have Norwegian Wood to go through in my TBR.


  1. That sounds like a scary (because it's true), thought-provoking book.

  2. Hi Mystica:) This sounds very intense indeed...I agree with the first commenter: very thought provoking!

    BTW; just wanted to let you know that I haven't forgotten you..I"ll be mailing y0ur books early next week...I'm actually away at the moment, that's why I didn't get around to mailing you the Austens- hope you understand:)

  3. Sounds like a difficult read, but sometimes they are the most worthwhile.

  4. I haven't read Underground yet although I had heard many stories about the Aum cult and also that Murakami did a pretty good job discussing what had happened. It's hard to understand why they did this for no particular reason except they felt they could. Did you know that Asahara Shoko (the leader) had visited SL and sat under the Bo tree in Anuradapura - it was such a sacrilege that now there is a fence around the tree. I think that shows what kind of a man he is. Anyway, I'm hoping to read this one day. Great review.

  5. Interesting - i would absolutely love to have a read of this. i have just finished "Kafka on the shore" for my book club (although, I shall not be posting on it for a while as I have rather stupidly read the book club choices out of order....) and although i did not find it a onventinoal read - it was an excellent reading experience and extremely accomplished.

    thanks for posting this excellent review and bringing this book to my attention.

    thanks indeed


  6. I've been meaning to read Murakami for a while, but this one might not be the best place to start! You've made it sound fascinating, but perhaps I should start with a more representative Murakami...

  7. Linking back to your review, my recent post can be found here:

    Glad you like the book as much as I did!

  8. Great review of this really interesting, very human book. I liked particularly the respectful approach of the author during the interviews with the survivors. i am not a big fan of Murakami's fiction, but Underground is an excellent book in my opinion. My review: