Monday, January 28, 2008

BOOK REVIEW - Haruki Murakami - Underground


One ordinary Monday morning, people in Tokyo left their homes at the usual time. Thousands took their habitual routes via the subway system to their places of work. As they travelled, they read their books, observed other passengers,and waited for their stop to appear. At first, it was just the odd individual who started coughing badly, nothing remarkable about that. There was a funny smell slightly sweet, but quite unpleasant. More and more people started coughing, an old men falls off his seat and slumps to the floor, they suddenly find their eyes sting and their sight gradually dims. The train pulls up in a station, some people get off and manage to get to work before they feel ill, others can hardly put one step in front of the other, and collapse onto the platform. The station staff do what they can, but it is a while before anyone notices the packages wrapped in newspapers that are leaking a sticky yellowish substances onto the floor of the subway train. When the staff do remove the package, they haven't a clue what they are handling or how to respond. As a consequence, and due to prolonged contact, some of them will eventually die. Hospitals are overrun with patients, vital moments, sometimes hours, are lost in trying to decide what sort of gas attack they are dealing with. Over 5,000 people were affected by this sarin attack, a dozen or so die, many hundreds are in some way maimed for life. Who could have done such a treacherous and cruel thing, and why?

Murakami's book, is really two books, two thirds consists of interviews with the survivors and relatives of the dead, and a final third interviews members of the Aum Shinryko cult that perpetrated the atrocity. The interviews with the survivors can sometimes be disconcerting, particularly in how distant and reserved they are, whilst an obvious tragedy is taking place all around them. There are records of great heroism and compassion too, and a pain filled glimpse into one beautiful young woman's condition, who has lost the ability to speak in anything other than huffs or grunts. The physical and mental cost to peoples lives was immense. But there was also a social and spiritual cost, a loss of a sense of purpose, of life's meaning, or simply diminished confidence and optimism. Some hate the members of Aum, others feign indifference, or just don't want to know any more.

Has Japan collectively faced up to why this incident happened? Murakami thinks not. That was why he later chose to interview the Aum members, to try and tease out further what went wrong. These are the most shocking interviews. As a Buddhist, it is disturbing to see how blatantly Asahara reinterprets, bends and distorts the most basic of teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths. The fact that all people suffer, ends up making the Aum followers an enlightened elite, that justified looking down on 'ordinary people', 'ordinary people' who are worthy of being massacred. Tantric Vajryana in his hands becomes a spiritual fast track which justifies any means, skilful or otherwise, including gassing thousands of innocent people. Aum had a rigid, yet unfathomable hierarchical structure, completely dictated by the word of the Guru, or his most senior disciples. As a doomsday cult, Aum exploited the 'end of the world' scenario to create a sense of spiritual urgency – 'do you want liberation before it all goes pear shaped or not? - if you do, do what the Guru says.'

Before the sarin attacks the levels of coercion reached appalling heights. People were hung upside down for hours and forcible tortured. Members were force fed mind altering drugs to accelerate their 'spiritual' development. If you resisted or questioned, you might be given electric-shock treatment, to 'break your ego.' In this climate of unquestioning obedience to the Guru, and the explicit background of intimidation, you start to understand how quite intelligent people could pierce bags of liquid sarin with the points of umbrellas on the subway trains and walk away. All as part of a process of spiritual salvation. Yet even the Aum followers who have now left it, cannot find it in themselves to dismiss Aum completely, they got something useful from their involvement, it was not easy for them to denounce it completely.

Perhaps it was just a sense of wanting to belong to something meaningful, an alternative to an inadequate secular world, to want something more or better from life. Not entirely inhuman aspirations. This book has no underlying message, it lets you read the testimonies and make your own judgements. For me it demonstrated that idealism, if not adequately grounded in reality and compassionate understanding of human failings, can become a very cruel insensitive weapon to use against yourself, or upon others.

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