An act of violence at once cruelly strategic and terrifyingly random, the gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system was a flash point in the chronic identity crisis of an increasingly beleaguered nation. On a bright, chilly Monday morning in March 1995, Aum Shinrikyo cult members, apparently under the orders of their half-blind, doomsaying guru Shoko Asahara, punctured bags of liquid sarin aboard rush-hour trains, killing a dozen people and injuring thousands more.
Arriving a mere two months after the Great Kobe Earthquake, smack in the middle of what came to be known as Japan’s “lost decade” (a period characterized by gnawing economic stagnation, political disarray, rising suicide rates, and an outbreak of homicidal teen rampages), the incident remains an emblematic open sore. For novelist Haruki Murakami, Aum’s terrorist strike coincided with his return to Japan after years of “self-imposed exile” and inspired his first work of nonfiction, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.
Murakami has long been obsessed with subterranean realms; his stories often wander into physical and psychic netherworlds. At the becalmed center of even his most extravagantly plotted fiction lies a steadying imperative: to make sense of the senseless. (His most recent batch of short stories, not yet translated into English, revolve around the Kobe earthquake.) Murakami not only renders the banalities of day-to-day life with a precision that borders on the tactile, he somehow evokes the queasy coexistence of something unnameable and altogether more bizarre. A recurring subject is the baffling fragility of what his protagonists know and believe to be reality—in other words, the sort of cognitive dissonance you might experience if you “just happened to be gassed on the way to work.”
Underground‘s grand subtitle is out of proportion to its modest approach, but in his own characteristically sneaky way, the author almost lives up to it. Keeping diagnoses within the bounds of a brief, cogent essay, Murakami constructs a post-traumatic oral history, avoiding big-picture commentary in deference to “the concrete, irreducible humanity of each individual.”
Murakami found 60 survivors (commuters and train conductors) and relatives of victims who would speak on the record. Organized by subway line, the first-person testimonials are allowed to overlap and contradict each other—the discrepancies attesting to the chaos of the moment and to the selectivity and fallibility of memory. Each opens with an inventory of daily routine, which tends to occasion ruminations on the roles chance and habit played that morning, determining whether commuters sat upwind or downwind from the sarin packet, missed or made an earlier transfer, boarded the carriage near a particular exit. Passengers describe the first whiff of sarin: paint thinner, rotten onions, coconut, “a suffocatingness.” They recite the checklist of symptoms: nausea, shortness of breath, headaches, and—aggravating the surreally apocalyptic mood no end—contracted pupils, causing the world around to literally darken. Murakami lingers too on the recovery process—the physical aftereffects and psychological fallout (“The day after, I asked my wife for a divorce”).
The first part of Underground refutes—in exhaustive, humanizing detail—the notion of faceless victimhood implicit in the crude “us vs. them” spin that, according to Murakami, dominated Japanese media coverage of the incident. The remainder of the book, consisting of more discursive interviews with eight cult members, suggests that the gap between Us and Them is largely illusory. Aum, he argues, “shows us a distorted image of ourselves.” The followers he speaks to are mostly intelligent young adults—disillusioned, depressed, lonely, and in many ways completely ordinary. Murakami maps the psychological terrain in terms of competing narratives, with Asahara’s role that of a “master storyteller” whose outlandish scenarios, for thousands of Japanese, provided succor in the absence of viable alternatives. “Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own?” Murakami wonders. “Are your dreams really your own dreams? Might not they be someone else’s visions that could sooner or later turn into nightmares?”
The sensation of being engulfed and transported by a fiction beyond one’s control or comprehension courses through Sputnik Sweetheart, the latest Murakami novel to be translated into English. This slender volume breaks no new ground, but it represents an invigorating synthesis of previous triumphs: the realist heartbreak and displaced-love triangle of Norwegian Wood; the shapely, insinuating melancholy of South of the Border, West of the Sun; the free-associative forward motion of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (albeit in miniature). The unnamed narrator is Murakami’s familiar everyman, the thoughtful, bookish loner who goes out of his way to assert his sheer averageness. He’s in love with his one friend, whimsical would-be beatnik Sumire, but she has fallen hard for an older woman named Miu. As is often the case, the plot is galvanized by an inexplicable abandonment. Sumire vanishes while vacationing on a Greek island with Miu, and our hero is summoned to help solve the mystery. Poring over two curious pieces of writing Sumire left behind, he finds no answers, just one metaphysical riddle after another: fugue states, lunar hallucinations, splintered psyches, doppelgängers passing through bizarro-world portals.
Murakami’s distinctive voice—unadorned, colloquial, companionable—indulges in a few more flights of sustained lyricism than usual. The cosmic metaphor hinted at in the title—the solitary orbits and enveloping darkness endured by space hardware—is a little labored, but Murakami abandons it entirely in the bravura final stretch. The narrator returns to Tokyo, left to confront his overpowering loneliness. Murakami works his anguish into a howl of raw despair, modulates it into a numb ache, then confounds it with a miraculous sleight of hand. Sputnik Sweetheart eases the pain the only way it can—by yielding to a new, dreamy, tentatively reassuring narrative.