From Haruki Murakami, internationally acclaimed author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood, a work of literary journalism that is as fascinating as it is necessary, as provocative as it is profound.
In March of 1995, agents of a Japanese religious cult attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin, a gas 26 times as deadly as cyanide. Attempting to discover why, Murakami conducted hundreds of interviews with the people involved, from the survivors to the perpetrators to the relatives of those who died, and Underground is their story in their own voices. Concerned with the fundamental issues that led to the attack as well as these personal accounts, Underground is a document of what happened in Tokyo as well as a warning of what could happen anywhere. This is an enthralling and unique work of nonfiction that is timely and vital and as wonderfully executed as Murakami’s brilliant novels.
"without a proper ego nobody can create a personal narrative, any more than you can drive a car without an engine, or cast a shadow without a real physical object. But once you've consigned your ego to someone else, where on earth do you go from there?"
- Haruki Murakami, Underground
Looking back 20 years to the Tokyo Gas Attack, it seems inevitable that Murakami would write about it. Writing about dark tunnels that bridge both the victims and the devout, that link a damp tongue of evil with the milk of everyday kindness seems a natural space for Murakami.
This isn't a perfect look at Japanese Death Cults or even the Sarin Subway Attack of 1995. It is basically a series of interviews. First with the victims of the attack, the survivors, the families, the doctors and scientists. The few who would actually talk about it. That was part of the purpose of this book. Japanese culture was quiet about the attack. The government would prefer to move past mistakes. The survivors too just wanted to move past their second victimization. The Japanese Psyche is an area that interested Murakami and he seemed to feel a need to explore the wounds that festered in Japan after the attack (and the Kobe quake). He felt a need to let the harmed speak; to give voice to silent; to clear the air. He wanted to return to his country and shine a light into the dark tunnels that many there wanted to seal off forever.
After interviewing a few of the victims (most of the hundreds of victims didn't want to talk about it, and only a few dozen were willing to be interviewed, even with Murakami's VERY liberal interview process), and after Underground was first published, Murakami wanted to get a better sense of those members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. So, he added a section. He might not get to interview those who actually perpetrated the Sarin gas attack, but he could speak to their brothers and sisters. He could use those same techniques to explore what drew these young, intelligent seekers into a cult that would perpetrate such a heinous attack. He did it with very little pre-judgement. Those he interviewed from Aum covered the track of belief. Some had left. Many had moved on into smaller pods, surviving the best they could. Some struggled inside belief. Some struggled outside of belief, now empty of their faith, but unable to return to any form of normalcy.
In many way the book reminded me of both Jon Krakauer's 'Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith' and Lawrence Wright's 'Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief'. Murakami's book was less formal, less direct, and not quite as sharp as Krakauer or Wright's books. He let his subjects speak and thus the story would always remain unfocused a bit. His book's structural limitations let you sympathize with both groups, but there was very little mapping to the narrative.
It was a good book, just not a great book. It was interesting, just not fascinating. I'm glad I read it more because it was a Murakami book and less because it was a great book about cults or terrorism. It was a check mark. It was a pin on a map. It alone, however, wasn't a destination.
The narrators did a fine job, but there were several minor production issues (repetitions, gaps, etc) that only irritated a bit. Enough to acknowledge, but not enough to burn something down.
13 of 18 people found this review helpful
I really wanted to give high marks to Haruki Murakami for reporting the victims' stories about the Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995, "Underground", but I almost couldn't listen to any of their stories anymore. I found that Haruki Murakami's reporting style to be very bland and boring. After a while there was too many of the victims' stories all bunch together, where I found it tiresome to listen to.
As for the interviews of Aum Shinrikyo's members, it was interesting, but I preferred hearing from the victims instead. Maybe it's because the passive style of reporting from the Japanese culture or maybe Haruki Murakami is a really bad interviewer, but he should not write nonfiction anymore.
He is awful as a reporter.
This book just dragged on. I was really hoping to give at least three stars, but it's two stars at best.
There is one compelling story that I liked the most. It was about the housewife when she found out that her husband was one of the casualties. Her in laws came by train to the hospital to see their dead son. The family got closer and life went on, but his daughter will never know her father.
4 of 7 people found this review helpful
This is everything a great oral history of an inexplicable but significant event should be.
What did you love best about Underground?
That Murakami was able to step back and let the stories tell themselves.
If you could give Underground a new subtitle, what would it be?
20 March 1995