I still remember the first time I came across this book at the local used-book store. I was about to check out with my purchases when I noticed a book with Murakami written on its spine behind the woman at the counter, so I asked her for it & quickly looked up the book on Goodreads. But I wasn’t really keen on non-fiction back then, someone on my friends’ list had given it a one-star rating & I being short on cash conspired together & I didn’t buy it. Bad judgement on my part, now that I think about it.
‘Underground’ is partly an interviewee memoir & partly a work of investigative journalism, narrated by Haruki Murakami in Rashomon-style from the viewpoints of people affected in the Tokyo Subway Gas Attack. At the very start, Murakami makes it clear that the biggest motivation behind writing this book was to search for the answer to the one question that the media reports never really bothered to find out –
“What actually happened in the subway on March 20, 1995?”
Despite Murakami acknowledging that he wasn’t a great verbal communicator, he does well to steer clear of stating his own involvement in the interviews & mentions himself as little as possible, limiting his inputs to a few occasional clarifications or comments & showing the sensitivity required to handle such a delicate matter. This helps the victim to really open up during the interview, speaking at length about themselves (including digressions at times) & recounting their horrific experiences of that fateful Monday. Even though it feels a tad repetitive, what engages the reader is the insight these experiences provide into how the Japanese mindset works. Murakami does correctly point out that though these accounts of victims are after all just human memories & not exactly hard facts, they often prove more enlightening than consistency probably ever would.
The book, when originally published, included only the accounts of the victims. Murakami, however, paid heed to some sections of his readership who suggested that he also should’ve interviewed some members of Aum Shinrikyo – the religious cult who perpetrated the attack – to give a glimpse of both sides of the story. Though he appears a bit prejudiced & even harsh at times (my observation entirely) towards the members of Aum (all of them here had no hand in the gas attack), it probably stems from the amount of damage & hurt he’d experienced first-hand while interacting with the victims before. But then, Murakami is not a professional journalist & he is more likely to express himself than any stoic journo would.
‘Underground’ by Haruki Murakami is a riveting work of investigative reportage & certainly succeeds in achieving what it sets out to do – try to give an unbiased account of both sides of the Tokyo Gas Attack & explore where the Japanese as a responsible society is going off the rails. Highly recommended.
Overall Rating: 8/10
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