Monday, January 26, 2009


This was my fourth book in the Japanese Literature Challenge 2 and a very different style of read for me. During the Japanese reading challenge I got addicted to Haruki Murakami's fictional fantasies and picked up 'Underground' not really knowing much about it. I made a commitment earlier this year to read some non fiction, but secretly thought 'how boring?' Well this non fiction account of the Tokyo gas attacks on the underground was definitely not boring.

'Murakami shares with Alfred Hitchcock a fascination for ordinary people being suddenly plucked by extra ordinary circumstances from their daily lives' (Sunday Telegraph). This so aptly describes what Murakami has done in this book. In the first half of the book he sets out to locate as many individuals he can find who were affected by the Gas Attacks in 1995. He interviews individuals, and some their family members, who were travelling on the 5 subway lines affected by the terrorist attacks. Each interview is printed as it was recorded and double checked by the interviewee for accuracy. These are powerful stories of every day people being plucked from their daily lives. What surprised me most was the apparent equal mix of individuals who broke with routine to help, and those who did not willingly break with their routine. Some people were compelled by their routine to stay in the carriage with the gas fumes because that's were they always sit! Others were courageously moved to help, putting themselves in harms way (either knowingly or not) to help. One is moved to question - what would I do?

In the second part of the book, Murakami offers his own reflections on both the terrorist attacks and his experience researching it. from page 195 the chapter called 'blind nightmare'
For many months thereafter, the media overflowed with 'news' of all kinds about the cult. From morning til night Japanese TV was virtually non-stop Aum.....
none of which told me what I wanted to know. No, mine was a very simple questions: what actually happened in the Tokyo subway the morning of 20 March 1995?
or more correctly: what were the people in the subway carriages doing at the time? what did they see? what did they feel? what did they think?

In the third part of the book Murakami interviews present and ex members of the cult Aum. I have to say this was the most challenging bit for me to read. Murakami is courageous himself in that he accepted the challenge to document what happened on that day in march, and what lead to it from the cult members perspective.

Now a narrative is a story, not logic, nor ethics, nor philosophy. it is a dream you keep having, weather you realize it or not. just as surely as you breathe, you go on ceaselessly dreaming your story. And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. You are the whole and you are a part. you are real and your are shadow. 'Storyteller' and at the same time 'character'. It is through such multi layering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being and isolated individual in the world.

Murakami hasn't disappointed me, he's challenged me. I have a professional interest in trauma and psychological wellbeing, and this was a true and honest account of many individuals different experiences of the same extra ordinary event that changed their lives and their views of the world.

Recommended reading!


Karen said...

Sounds like a really interesting book.

Unknown said...

I love Murakami, and have heard about this book before, but worry that I might find it too disturbing. Are really graphic scenes of people dying described?, and are the heartwarming stories of bravery enough to leave you feeling optimistic after reading this, or just disturbed?

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Tamara said...

Hi Karen, definitely interesting, and from some of the conversations I've had with people about the Newcastle earthquake, there are similarities.

Hi Jackie, it is disturbing, but not in a graphic way, more if you think about how it started as an ordinary day for ordinary people and changed. I didn't find it leaving me upset, sad or 'affected', but neither did I feel optimistic. I think I'd encourage you to try it. Murakami offers a unique look into a [hopefully] unique event. Let us know if you do pick it up..

jem said...

Good to read your review of this. I like Murakami, and have read quite a few of his fictional novels like you. I've read quite a bit of Japanese literature, both modern and older. Sometimes I worry that Murakami tried to be too Westernised in his writing. I've got this on my wishlists - it sounds fascinating.

Bellezza said...

AGH! I want to read this one so much! I think I'll stop cleaning today and just read it. Thanks for participating so beautifully in the JLC2. I really enjoyed meeting you, and I hope to continue our blogging friendship.

megan said...

I've tried to read Murakami's Norwegian Wood a couple of times, but was never able to get into it.

This is definitely one on my radar - I'm not a huge non-fiction reader (although I read Into Thin Air in about a day because I couldn't put it down), but this really does sound like a fascinating read.

Tamara said...

Megan, I didn't think I was into non fiction either, but somehow I didn't realise what I was doing.... it's not that hard to get into it because he's telling other people's stories.
Jem, I don't know if its too western or not, it's really a story about how Japanese people reacted in an abnormal situation. I'm not sure how it would be different if it was more Japanese? I'd appreciate you thoughts.
Bellezza - Maybe you'll read this in the 3rd challenge when it starts this year?? Good luck.

Mytwostotinki said...

A very human and respectful book, full of empathy with the survivors of the sarin attack. The best Murakami book I read so far. Although the structure of the book was especially in the first part somehow repetitive, I felt never bored because each survivor gains individuality on just a few pages. My own review: