Book Awards E-MAIL US

The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Haruki Murakami
366 pp.

Amazon.com order now logo

Sputnik Sweetheart
Haruki Murakami
Alfred A. Knopf
210 pp.

Amazon.com order now logo



Lost Souls
Haruki Murakami's Underground and Sputnik Sweetheart

In Underground and Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami explores the illusory nature of selfhood and draws intriguing connections between Franz Kafka, Buddhism and modern cults.

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is finally reaching a broad American audience—a rare feat for a serious international writer—and his English-speaking readers are now experiencing an embarrassment of riches as his previously untranslated books are making their way into English. Last September, we got Norwegian Wood, which had originally appeared in Japan in 1987. Now, timed to appear with Murakami's latest novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, Vintage has published Underground, a nonfiction account of the 1995 sarin gas poisoning that killed twelve people and injured five thousand others on the Tokyo subway system.

Underground originally appeared as two separate works in Japan. The first (and longer of the two) was a collection of interviews with several dozen sarin victims (plus two interviews with a deceased victim's family); it appeared in 1997. The second work was a collection of interviews with eight members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that perpetrated the sarin attack; it appeared in 1998. (None of the cult members Murakami interviewed were involved with the poisoning.) The English text brings them together as simply Part One and Part Two, and reading them together with their obviously divergent tracks is a compelling, satisfyingly complete experience.

Planning and executing the victim interviews was a massive undertaking—from locating victims through newspaper accounts and convincing at least some of them to be interviewed to transcribing the taped interviews and trimming them into a publishable shape that, as a single, large project, has a coherent narrative thrust. It's a decidedly different undertaking compared to, say, writing novels, but Murakami does splendid work with the project.

One thinks, reflexively, of Shiva Naipaul's account of the Jonestown cult suicide (Journey to Nowhere), but Underground is better, I think, both as an account of cult aberrations and literary-level reportage. It's a fascinating, if harrowing, account which has questions of fate and, to paraphrase Frost, the train car not taken at its center. The lack of emergency service preparedness—both the ambulances and the hospitals—is certainly unsettling (one man—who was actually dying—was refused admission to a hospital). But the element that lingers the longest is how the victims responded to the attack: the vast majority of Murakami's interview subjects simply carried on with their day after being gassed and were forced into visiting a hospital only after losing their sight altogether. Here is how one victim describes the scene in one of the gassed train cars:


The train carries on—Shin-otsuka, Myogadani, Korakuen—and around Myogadani lots of people are beginning to cough. Of course, I'm coughing too. Everyone has his handkerchief out over his mouth or nose. A very odd scene, with everyone hacking away at the same time. As I recall, passengers started getting off at Korakuen. As if on cue, everyone was opening windows. Eyes itching, coughing, generally miserable...I didn't know what was wrong with me, it was all so strange, but anyway I went on reading my newspaper like always. It's a long-standing habit.


Apparently, hypochondriacs don't ride the Tokyo subway.

Murakami wants Underground's title to do triple duty—referring first literally to the subways, of course, then to the underground motif that runs through his fiction so richly (think, for example, of the underground INKlings in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) and, finally and perhaps most interestingly, to a metaphorical notion that the Aum cult is an 'underground' mirror of 'normal' Japanese society. "Now of course a mirror image is always darker and distorted," Murakami writes.


Convex and concave swap places, falsehood wins out over reality, light and shadow play tricks. But take away these dark flaws and the two images are uncannily similar; some details almost seem to conspire together. Which is why we avoid looking directly at the image, why, consciously or not, we keep eliminating those dark elements from the face we want to see. These subconscious shadows are an "underground" that we carry around within us, and the bitter aftertaste that continues to plague us long after the Tokyo gas attack comes seeping out from below.


We all borrow 'junk' parts to construct a narrative for ourselves, he argues; the Aum cult members simply made the unfortunate mistake of borrowing their parts from a paranoid mass killer (Shoko Asahura). The solid divisions between 'us' and 'them' and sanity and insanity thus become more blurred than the media suggests in its coverage of aberrant behavior. It's certainly an intriguing notion, and I wish Murakami had explored it in greater detail. (It occupies the eighteen pages that separate the victims' interviews from the cult members' interviews.) It's a small complaint, really. Underground is a compelling book, and it merits sustained attention.


Besides being a fast-paced psychological suspense novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, Murakami's newest title, is a superb existentialist examination of the mutability of the self—and as such, it's a particularly intriguing companion to Underground. Indeed, on one level, the story arc its heroine (twenty-two-year-old Sumire) follows is akin to an initiation into a cult. She's young, impressionable and not really going anywhere in life, and suddenly she finds herself being overwhelmed—both sexually and psychologically—by the mesmeric power of a successful, thirty-nine-year-old businesswoman she met at a wedding reception. For someone who had always thought sexual desire baffling, the attraction is unsettling, to say the least, but its power is undeniable. Soon, Sumire is working for the woman (Miu), and allowing herself to be altered dramatically. Miu gives her a new wardrobe, has a new apartment picked out for her, gets her Italian lessons, teaches her how to use a computer and appreciate good food.

It's not all perfect, though: Sumire finds her loss of self disturbing. "When I get up in the morning and see my face in the mirror," she tells the novel's unnamed narrator, "it looks like someone else's. If I'm not careful, I might end up left behind." And if she lost herself, she asks, "where could I go?" The narrator's response echoes the self-as-a-fictional-construct argument Murakami makes in Underground:


"The biggest problem right now is that you don't know what sort of fiction you're dealing with. You don't know the plot; the style's still not set. The only thing you do know is the main character's name. Nevertheless, this new fiction is reinventing who you are. Give it time, it'll take you under its wing, and you may very well catch a glimpse of a brand-new world. But you're not there yet. Which leaves you in a precarious position."


That may be reassuring advice, but Murakami isn't the sort of novelist who lets his characters prosper by good advice alone. Soon, the narrator gets a middle-of-the-night call saying that Sumire has gone missing while on holiday in Greece with Miu. The loss of identity, it seems, has become literal. The narrator rushes to Greece to help search for Sumire, but ask yourself: how, precisely, does one go about finding a lost self?

There's a pronounced Kafkaesque touch throughout Sputnik Sweetheart: the narrator often finds himself suspended between wakefulness and sleep (mostly, middle-of-the-night calls are to blame), and many of the story's transitions have an eerily dreamlike simplicity and abruptness. At times, the narrator even seems to struggle to stay awake, to keep it all 'normal' and 'above ground' for himself as well as us. And, true to Kafka, Murakami offers up some beautiful metaphors, like this one (Miu is speaking to the narrator about her relationship with Sumire):


"And then it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they're nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we'd be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing."


Of course, the metamorphosis theme is pure Kafka as well, but I think Murakami's philosophical interests lean as much to the great magical realist, Julio Cortázar: the solidity of self is not merely questioned but nullified, and the world into which the self formerly settled cozily becomes a barren desertscape worthy of Antonioni (who adapted Cortázar's short story, "Blow-Up," of course: it's a small ontological world).

Murakami is a master storyteller, and the smooth, seductive ease with which the deceptively complex Sputnik Sweetheart progresses is impressive. The thematic and structural control he exhibits alone marks him as one of the most agile, natural novelists working today, and it's heartening to see a writer's abiding philosophical interests revealed so consistently from book to book. The fact that two new Murakami books have appeared in English translation in as many months is reason for celebration, indeed.

—Review by Doug Childers

Posted June 1, 2001



About the Author

Born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1949, Haruki Murakami grew up in Kobe and now lives near Tokyo.  The most recent of his many honors is the Yomiuri Literary Prize, whose previous recipients include Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe and Kobo Abe. His work has been translated into twenty-seven languages.



Graphic Design by D.A. Frostick 
Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999-2005
riverrun enterprises, inc.