Book Review: Readings

Haruki Murakami

By Penny Van Horn


The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

by Haruki Murakami

Vintage, 366 pp., $14 (paper)

Sputnik Sweetheart

by Haruki Murakami

Knopf, 210 pp., $23

Aboard four separate Tokyo subway cars on Monday, March 20, 1995, members of a Buddhist cult punctured medical bags of liquid sarin wrapped in newspaper with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas. Handpicked for their loyalty by Shoko Asahara, the guru of the doomsday religion known as Aum Shinrikyo, these were otherwise responsible, highly regarded Japanese citizens -- engineers, doctors, and teachers. Twelve people lost their lives and more than 5,000 were poisoned, many of whom still struggle with mental and physical symptoms. Haruki Murakami's Underground is an oral history of those events and their impact on the collective consciousness of Japan.

Throughout the recollections of the bereaved, there is an underlying picture of people trying to go about their business as usual. Subway attendants, unaware they were handling poison, quickly mopped the floors of the cars and sent them on to their next stop, simply disposing of the sarin-drenched newspapers in the station's trash cans. On their way above ground, people scurried past others who were coughing uncontrollably, only to make it to work for a few hours before checking into the hospital for treatment. TV-station vans arrived on the scene before ambulances, and were commandeered to transport the critically ill and dying. Doctors didn't know whether to treat people for cyanide or sarin poisoning until a university doctor who had treated patients in an earlier sarin incident at Matsumoto happened to witness the panic on television and contacted Tokyo hospitals and clinics with the proper diagnosis.

Six years later, many Japanese want to punish Shoko Asahara and Aum Shinrikyo, move on, and forget the horror of the subway gas attack. In a compelling essay bridging parts one and two of Underground, titled "Blind Nightmare: Where Are We Japanese Going?," Murakami worries that mainstream Japanese will learn nothing by distancing themselves from Aum. Citing examples from recent and ancient Japanese history, Murakami establishes a pattern of a traditionally proud culture that discourages examining or accepting shame. It is precisely this painful examination that Murakami has undertaken.

When Underground was originally published in Japan, the second part of the book, which contains interviews with Aum cult members, was not yet written. Murakami felt that including the Aum viewpoint might be distracting and also disrespectful to those who reluctantly shared their stories of grief and loss. We are lucky in the West that the English translation includes the now-released part two: "The Place That Was Promised." Part two's interviews portray a human element within Aum Shinrikyo. Even as the media began condemning Aum, and even after some of its captured members confessed, many of Shoko Asahara's disciples refused to believe that he could have engineered something so gruesome; one of Aum's tenets held that it is wrong to kill even a cockroach. Murakami's subjects in part two are physically and mentally disciplined people who chose isolation as the cure for their inability to go along with "normal" society and its passion for consumption. The stories of average Aum members and their sense of betrayal furthers Murakami's notion that myopia within and without is partly culpable for the tragedy. When all is said and done, it is not the assigning of blame, but the prevention of another catastrophe that is paramount.

It is fitting that Murakami's latest work of fiction, like most of his work, deals with fairly ordinary people struggling to cope with extraordinary experiences. Sputnik Sweetheart is a combination love story and surreal mystery. Like a ghost, the protagonist and narrator remains nameless throughout and is unable to truly reveal himself to his beloved, who has fallen in love with another woman and later disappears. The secrets these characters keep from one another both fuel and abate their closeness. Murakami's protagonist loses himself in those secrets and the disorder left in their wake; wandering alone on a mountaintop in Greece, he searches desperately for the woman he loves. The clues he finds lead him somewhere else entirely: "Bathed in the pallid moonlight, my body, like some plaster puppet, had lost all living warmth. As if a voodoo magician had put a spell on me, blowing my transient life into this lump of clay. The spark of life had vanished. My real life had fallen asleep somewhere, and a faceless someone was stuffing it in a suitcase, about to leave."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Lindsey Simon
Phases and Stages
Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott
Sheet Music

Oct. 25, 2002

In Play
In Play
Neverwinter Nights is more than a game, actually: It's a gaming system to be built on.

Aug. 9, 2002


Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle