On March 20, 1995 in the busy subway system of Tokyo, Japan, five terrorists released sarin gas, causing death and suffering on completely arbitrary victims. The people responsible were all linked to a mysterious cult/religion known as Aum Shinrikyo. Why had these people done this? What were they trying to achieve? Was it random terrorism or was there a bigger plan behind it? These are the question one might ask themselves when examining the facts of this tragedy. Certainly there are countless individuals pondering these question right know in regard to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. But this is not necessarily the only goal of Haruki Murakami’s book, Underground [Vintage press]. What he seeks to do is to give an insight into the mind set of the Japanese people as whole. What were their reactions and how could something so horrific happen in such a "safe" society?
In the first half of the book, Murakami interviews survivors of the gas attack. Sarin itself is twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide and, we learn, it would only take a drop the size of a pin head to kill a person- which is much less than what was released on the trains. The gas affects the eyes causing restricted vision and even complete loss of sight. Most of the victims faced uncontrollable convulsing and vomiting. It is, in short, poison. Considering that so many were hit by the attack and only about a dozen died, it almost seems as though the survivors were very lucky. Some agree, but there are others who tell it differently. Each person recounts his own comings and going on the morning of March 20, 1995 and the reader is given a insight into the minds of the victims, not only their perspective of the attack but their feelings on Aum itself. The results are often surprising as there are those more upset with the media than the attackers and others who feel guilt for even being there. Perhaps most tragic are the two interviews conducted with the wife of a man who died, followed by an interview with his parents. The first hand accounts are bad enough, but it is the words of those close to one of the victims that proves most haunting.
Part Two the book continues the Studs Terkel-style of oral history by interviewing former and even a few current members of the Aum religion. Again, it is in these pages that the book offers something incredible. From the young man who condemns the attack while still remaining a member of the cult, to the young girl who lost much of her memory from electroshock administered within Aum, these interviews are often chilling and always fascinating. Murakami manages to do more than retell the morning of the attack, he helps us to understand the events leading up to it. Each interviewee offers a personal history, showing the person rather than the statistic.
Murakami himself has said that prior to meeting these people he always regarded the "salarymen" of his country to be somewhat alien to an artist such as himself. After meeting these people and hearing their stories he has had to rethink his perceptions of his country, those around him, and even himself. This was his task in writing Underground. As he says in the afterword to the book, "Maybe they (the cult members) think about things a little too seriously. Perhaps there’s some pain they’re carrying around inside. They’re not good at making their feelings known to others and are somewhat troubled. They can’t find a suitable means to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. They might very well be me. It might be you.