52 Books: Underground

Book 50 is Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.  This is a collection of 30-something interviews with individuals who survived the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo subway sarin attack.  This is the second Murakami book I’ve read this year, and I think he’s starting to become one of my favorite writers.

This was an incredibly tough read.  First, it’s the tragedy of the whole thing.  People died in pretty terrible ways, and thousands more were poisoned to varying degrees.  Second, I was halfway through this thing when the Las Vegas shooting happened, and damn it if that didn’t make it even harder to stay motivated to keep reading.  And then, third, there is the reality that most of these interviews, as they’re written, started to become formulaic and repetitive: I rode this train, I smelled a smell, I saw people collapsing/succumbing to the gas, I escaped but suffered from these symptoms, the emergency services response was inadequate.  It starts to blur together.  I got more and more desperate for Murakami to swoop in and start piecing this together for me, to do what the title and preface promised and tell me what this all meant about the Japanese psyche.

But then came the interviews with the families of two particular victims–Shizuko Akashi and Eiji Wada–that jut out like rusty nails to snag your brain and heart on.  Murakami’s writing here, when he finally steps away from the survivors’ voices and speaks himself, becomes so understated as though to disappear completely.  What remains is the absolute devastation of the attack on these people’s lives.

By the end of the first part (survivor interviews—the second part is about ten former/current Aum Shinrikyo member interviews) Murakami finally put it all together in a way that really spoke volumes (to me) about the nature of tragedy, the experience of loss, and the monumental task of trying to adequately communicate those things to those who weren’t a part of it:

Especially after conducting interviews with the family of Mr. Eiji Wada–who died in Kodemmacho Station–and with Ms. “Shizuko Akashi”–who lost her memory and speech and is still in the hospital undergoing therapy–I had to seriously reconsider the value of my own writing.  Just how vividly could my choice of words convey to the reader the various emotions (fear, despair, lonliness, anger, numbness, alienation, confusion, hope…) these people experienced?…

I came to them from the “safety zone,” someone who could always walk away whenever I wanted. Had they told me, “There’s no way you can truly know what we feel,” I’d have had to agree. End of story.

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