June 19, 2018

Reading : Underground by Haruki Murakami

If you know me just a little you know that Haruki Murakami is my favorite (not just favorite writer, but a favorite thing in life) and if you're one of the several people to whom I've recommended him and didn't love him as much as I do, I first apologize that I disappointed you.  Then I ask that you suspend those feelings and consider this book in a new, different way.  This book being Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.  Because while it capitalizes on so much of what I love about Murakami (his sensitivity, curiosity, and insight into individual people), it's a very different kind of narrative.  First because it's non-fiction and second because it contains primarily the words of others.

Like most Murakami fans, I know and love the motifs he loves: cats, delicate physical features like moles and ears, loner protagonists, loner characters hanging out at bars, mysterious women, disappearing women, Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, islands, wells and underground worlds.  (I left out jazz because I don't know anything about jazz other than Murakami is obsessed with it, so can't claim to love it).  I also love that he writes lines like "The pillow smelled like the sunlight," which might be my favorite sentence in the world.  

The other thing I value so much about Murakami is his interest in trauma and its obvious and subtle after-effects.  In his short story collection After the Quake, he explores the lives of different individuals after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Kobe that killed over 6,000 people.  His characters didn't experience the earthquake themselves, but Murakami is sensitive to the idea that such impactful events can send out tremors, touch anyone, disrupt the flow of our psychological processes and concrete behaviors and daily routines.  All without any tangible connection to the event itself.  He really appreciates how subtle and sensitive humans are, how much we absorb and retain.   

I think that memories and how someone experiences the past are some of the most important and interesting elements to a person's self-identity and how that person moves in the world. (At least, I think that about myself so it must be true about everyone else, right?).  I've found that so much of our interactions with patients have less to do with who they seem in the present moment, and much more with who they have been in all the scenes preceding the one in front of us.  And equally, how they will continue to process their past in the future.  

In our current culture of scrolling facebook feeds and streaming podcasts (both of which I indulge), it's easy to experience a million presents without considering how what's happening now will continue to affect us and others, tomorrow and years down the line.  There's so much new shit that makes it easy to forget that the old doesn't disappear, that old tragedy re-presents itself over and over in new forms to those who experience it.  Not only that, narratives on trauma are inherently less accessible to people who haven't experienced the same.

This is why I really respect writers who commit to giving voice and remembrance and attempted permanence to these narratives (Missoula being another incredible example and a book that taught me an enormous amount).  In Underground, Murakami interviews sixty-two people connected to the 1995 Tokyo gas attack in which members of a religious cult released sarin on three subway trains, killing thirteen people and injuring over six thousand.  The terrorists placed plastic bags of liquid sarin on the trains and poked them open with the tip of an umbrella, injuring passengers through direct contact as well as by inhaling evaporated gas.  Sarin is a organophosphate pesticide that causes continuous muscle contraction that ultimately paralyzes you, that kills by paralyzing the muscles that move your lungs in and out to breathe.  Before that it will make you cough and vomit uncontrollably, will make your eyes get smaller so that things close in on you.  The subway passengers had no idea that sarin was the source of their symptoms, and subway workers trying to restore order handled the sarin directly without knowing what it was, resulting in their deaths and severe injury.

The book is divided into two parts, the first focused on the victims of the gas attack, and the second (published later) focused on members of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that perpetrated the attack.  It's the first that Murakami was more driven to write, and the more compelling. 

Murakami divides the stories by the three subway lines that were gassed.  First we learn a little about the men who planted the gas on the subways, then about the people who inhaled the gas. Each section is titled with the name of the person who experienced the attack, preceded by a quote from his or her narrative.  Murakami introduces the section with some details about the person, and then the subsequent story is narrated directly by the person largely without interruption or authorial voice from Murakami.  The interviews focus on memories of the attack and what happened on that day, and how it has affected the person since that time.  Most are just a handful of pages long, so that the story before stays fresh as you move to the next one, and it's easy to get through a dozen in one sitting.  

The repetition of the same event experienced by different people creates this organic effect where each story is layered on top of one another.  The commonalities become deeper in color from being told over and over, while the variations are bright in color in contrast to the established patterns.  In this way, we gain a sense of how widely this gas permeated the community, and also how heavily it weighed on individual people.  It makes for a really unique reading experience, and I found myself wishing I could learn about more current events in this way.    

A picture of Tokyo emerges that isn't surprising, but is more palpable when described by its residents.  The trains are so incredibly packed that the force of crowds separate a man from his briefcase, trample the glasses of another.  The commutes are long.  People have a routine for the exact train they take and the exact car of the train they board and the exact door of the car they use to board.  

A picture also emerges of what is lost after the gas attack, small and large punctures in people's lives even as some routines resume. Or what is displaced, as emotions like confusion and anger consume space not meant to house that kind of intensity for that long. Some people continue to have problems with their eyesight, headaches, memory.  And some people died, leaving behind families shocked by this sudden senselessness.  There is the woman who lives in a vegetative state, whose story is told by her brother (who travels an hour every day since the attack to be with her for an hour) and by Murakami who visits her in her nursing home.  As moving as these stories are, the most heartbreaking is the narrative that's not there, the one she should have been able to tell herself.  

Murakami relates to the victims in the same way I feel we relate to our patients every day: "I came to them from the 'safety zone," someone who could always walk away when 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."

But even if it's true that we can't fully know their experience, these people did choose to share, and most don't focus on hatred or revenge as their motive.  They ask us to reflect and remember, so that this doesn't happen again, and so that we respect the psychological aftermath as much as the physical event.  I'm grateful to Murakami for asking for their memories, for a slice of what they carry so that it doesn't remain underground.     


  1. Thanks for your recommendation Kim. I really enjoyed Underground too!
    Which other Murakami books have you recommended? I have read a few and think I should read more!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I haven't met many people who have read it. I love Kafka on the Shore and Wind-up Bird Chronicle, which are pretty different from Underground (or really, it's that Underground is really different from all his other books). I also really loved his short story collection Blind Willow Sleeping Woman; his short story collection After the Quake has a similar theme of Underground in terms of looking at subtle effects of a big incident, but it's fiction. Let me know if you read them and what you think, or if you have reading recs!

  3. Thanks for the response Kim! I am going through your reading list at the moment and putting in orders for the ones I think I would enjoy too.
    Yes absolutely agree with you about the windup bird chronicle! I couldn't put it down. I read some reviews online and then went back to reread some of the chapters again. It helped me understanding the characters and events better.
    I'll definitely seek out the other ones that you recommended. I actually read Men Without Women and thought it was lacking something. I took a long time to finish it!


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