Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Underground : Haruki Murakami

By Haruki Murakami

On Mar 20, 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, released sarin, a poison gas, on subway lines in Tokyo. 5,510 people were brought to hospitals - thirteen died, over 1000 had serious injuries.  

Murakami interviewed the victims, to understand who they were, what the day of the attack was like and how they were affected by the attack.  You get a sense of what it was like being on one of the affected subways and the extent of the confusion at what was going on (many victims continued to work, despite symptoms and only later realized they should head to the hospital).   Since Murakami talked with a range of people, in different professions and with different personalities, it's very easy to imagine what if it was me, or one of my family, or one of my friends, who had been on those subways...

Months after the attack, nearly all of the interviewed victims were still affected: fatigue, worsened vision, worsened memory, to such an extent that some could not continue their previous jobs.  It's just such a devastating, in-depth look into how just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can affect you so much.

After the original interviews, Murakami later added a section, interviewing members of the Aum Shinrikyo group, to understand who they were, why they joined Aum, what they did in the group and how they felt about the subway gas incident.  Many of the members had been struggling with bigger philosophical questions, felt lost as a member of "normal" society, and found that Aum was a place they could explore their spirituality.  Murakami strived to understand the members as people, probing deeper than the news media, who generally seemed to dismiss those in Aum as "others" (those crazy cultists).  That's not to say that he sympathizes with the Aum folk, but he was trying to understand how it is that people who felt lost in the cracks could be convinced to do such a destructive act, in order to form a better support network for similar people going forward.

Murakami does a really fine job questioning and probing not only to understand the event itself, but also the larger surrounding societal context as to how an event like this could happen.  While this event occurred in Japan in 1995, given events and the overall security-sensitive mood here in the US, over the last ten years, this book is still relevant and poignant.

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