It’s really unusual to start talking about your favorite author chosing an essay and not one of his most famous novels. But Underground is really important, in my opinion, to understand his novels and his poetics in general.
Underground is a collection of interviews about the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway: in 1995 some members of the religious sect Aum, founded in 1987 by Asahara Shōkō, released sarin inside the subway trains – sarin, a gas invented during WWII by the Germans, a single drop of it can kill a human being. This attack caused thousand of victims and about 12 deaths. The book collects the interviews of the survivors: they tell where they were, how they reacted and how this attack still influences their lives. Among these interviews we also find the interviews to the members of the Aum, which is actually another book published in Japanese as “約束された場所で―underground 2″, translated as “the place that was promised, underground 2”, quothing An Old Man Awake in his Own Death by Mark Strand.
Reading Underground takes us back to that morning in Tokyo. We are on the Chiyoda line, then on the Marunouchi line and so on. We live the tragedy everytime from the beginning, taking the point of view of who, after the attack, just went to work because they did not realize what had happened and thought they caught a flu; or of who immediately understood what was happening and started helping the others instead of taking care of themselves. We read of corageous people who lost their lives. We read of people who will never go back to their usual life. We read of people who cannot sleep at night anymore. Of course, as one can immagine, some of them feel rage, but actually the majority of the people just feel a terrible sadness for what happened and they hope that the culprits will be severely punished. The book also includes an essay entitled “Blind Nightmare: Where are we Japanese Going?” Murakami asserts that the media treated the issue through the equation Aum=Evil. But it is not that simple. There are deeper reasons for what happened and it has to do with the underground at the bottom of every of us. He himself highlights the importance of the underground in his novels. There is an entire world populated by these creatures. Every of us has a dark side and sometimes the darkness even comforts us. But we must not cross the line as the terrorists did that morning in Tokyo.
It is also really interesting reading the interviews to the Aum members. As for any religious sect, Aum completely annihilates the self. Some members or ex-members had a high education, some of them were even scientists. The question is: how could such educated people become an Aum member? Because they felt inadequate to this society. In Aum they felt “renewed”: as for the poem by Mark Strand, every of us is looking for their “place that was promised” and when it becomes really difficult to find it, that’s when people adhere to such sects, looking for a guide. Murakami wants to warn us, because the boundary is sometimes very blurry.
Underground is a very interesting reading: first of all because it questions the image -at least mine- of Japanese people, who are usually depicted so gentle and polite that one cannot think they are capable of conceiving such an attack. During the reading, I felt uneasy towards such religious sects: yes, not all sects are the same. We read of people who in Aum just saw an escape to their everyday life, even if it meant hard work and a poor life. Asahara was capable of corrupting a highly polite society, turning normal people into assassins. And that scares me.