Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


Member Area

by Pat Holt

Friday, September 28, 2001





After the terrorist attacks of September 11, I kept thinking of "Underground," Haruki Murakami's personal investigation of the 1995 gassing of Tokyo's subway system by the religious sect Aum Shinrikyo. Vintage released the paperback only a few months ago (366 pages; $14).

Murakami is the critically acclaimed novelist of such best-sellers as "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," "Norwegian Wood," "A Wild Sheep Chase" and other works of fiction. He might never have written about the gassings except that "the Japanese media had bombarded us with so many in-depth profiles of the Aum cult perpetrators," he felt, that the victims were "glimpsed only in passing" and forgotten.

"Our media probably wanted to create a collective image of the 'innocent Japanese sufferer,' " Murakami writes, "which is much easier to do when you don't have to deal with real faces. Besides, the classic dichotomy of 'ugly (visible) villains' versus the 'healthy (faceless) populace' makes for a better story."

So Murakami stopped his own work and attempted to locate, out of the thousands of victims who died or were injured from exposure to the bags of sarin (a toxic gas that is 26 times as deadly as cyanide), those survivors who would be willing to be interviewed for a nonfiction book.

"I wanted to get away from any formula," he tells us, "to recognize that each person on the subway that morning had a face, a life, a family, hopes and tears, contradictions and dilemmas - and that all these factors had a place in the drama."

Murakami and his assistants were able to track down 700 survivors, of whom 60 agreed to talk. The stories of these courageous people, preceded by short bios written by Murakami, are so plainspoken and moving (Studs Terkel is thanked for setting up the model) that when we hear of the choking, stinging, blinding symptoms they had to endure, along with memory loss and what may be permanent paralysis of the throat, lungs and limbs for many, we are indeed struck by the human face Murakami has brought to this catastrophe.

And when he introduces the gassing of each subway line with a brief description of the Aum member who dropped the bag of sarin and, just as the subway doors were closing, punctured the bag with the sharpened tip of his umbrella and walked away, knowing what would happen to the riders and especially to subway workers who would carry the bag out of the car (and who would surely perish), it feels as though we're staring into the face of pure evil as well.

But that was the media's "polemic," as Murakami puts it. "To them, the moral principle at stake in the gas attack was all too clear: 'good' versus 'evil,' 'sanity' versus 'madness,' 'health' versus 'disease.' "

Simplistic, yes. But it's hard for us to disagree with the reaction Murakami says was almost universal: "From every mouth it was the same outcry: 'The sheer lunacy of it all! . . . Where were the police? It's the death penalty for [Aum leader] Shoko Asahara no matter what . . . "

Yet despite the widespread belief in Japan that the gassing was "an open-and-shut case," Murakami begins to sense "some strange malaise, some bitter aftertaste [that] lingers on." For him, to "pack up the whole incident in a trunk labeled THINGS OVER AND DONE WITH" is a mistake. "What we need are words coming from another direction, new words for a new narrative. Another narrative to purify this narrative." It's fascinating to watch the novelist at work as detective, to find "some alternative to the media's 'Us' versus 'Them.' He begins interviewing members of the Aum sect themselves and is surprised to find that "their religious quest and the process of novel writing, though not identical, are similar." Talking intimately with them even puts a human face on an act anyone would consider "evil."

Finding out why "normal" people joined Aum and what they discovered about themselves and the strange disciplines of ascetic life under a dictatorial guru becomes as absorbing and provocative as learning about the survivors.

But it's Murakami's own casting-about that makes this book so profoundly engaging. On one page, he quotes from the Unabomber manifesto; on another he considers psychoanalytic theory. Over here he compares the rise of Aum to the rise of Hitler and Hare Krishna; over there he ponders science fiction theories and the use of "underground" as a metaphor in literature and in his own novels.

Perhaps the most compelling conclusion emerges as he remembers an election during 1990, when Aum leader Shoko Asahara ran for the Lower House of the Japanese Diet in the Tokyo district where Murakami lived.

"The campaign was a singularly odd piece of theater," he writes. "Day after day strange music played from big trucks with sound systems, while white-robed young men and women in oversize Asahara masks and elephant heads lined the sidewalk outside my local train station, waving and dancing some incomprehensible jig."

Like other passers-by, Murakami looked away. "I felt an unnameable dread, a disgust beyond my understanding." Who can blame him? Here were people walking around in robes and elephant heads, for heaven's sake, insisting their politics be taken seriously.

But it was because of his revulsion that Murakami and others should have forced themselves to look. If they had, they would have seen "something in that encounter, in [the Aum campaigners'] presence" that would have been "a distorted image of ourselves," he believes. "Or rather, 'they' are the mirror of 'us.' "

What could this mirror reflect? Murakami looks at a range of possibilities from the resemblance of Aum to pre-World War II Manchuria (a "puppet state" that had given up "its best and its brightest" to Japan after 1932 and then rebelled against "the alienations between language and actions"); the "grave doubts" of many people "about the inhumane, utilitarian gristmill of capitalism"; the despair one feels "if I end up just a cog in society's system"; and the lure of an "active spiritual world" that promises "an intense, perfect utopia."

But I think Murakami's book came to mind in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, assaults not because the Aum terrorists bear a connection to the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon (although they do in some ways). Rather, it's the novelist's way of dismantling and reconfiguring real-life catastrophe by looking first at its human face, then at buried questions inside himself.

The purpose of the book, Murakami says, is to provide "not one clear viewpoint, but flesh-and-blood material from which to construct multiple viewpoints; which is the same goal I have in mind when I write novels."

In this light, he says: "We need to realize that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they're not disadvantaged; they're not eccentrics. They are the people who live average lives, who live in my neighborhood. And in yours." It's just something to remember.

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
You can send comments or suggestions to

To subscribe, send a blank email to:


To unsubscribe, send a blank email to: