Underground by Haruki Murakami

“I have no physical symptoms, but psychologically there’s this burden. I’ve got to get rid of it somehow. Of course, when I first went back to work I was scared the same thing might happen again. It takes positive thinking to overcome fear, otherwise you’ll carry around this victim mentality forever.”

3/5 stars
Paperback, 309 pages.
Read from June 23, 2021 to July 7, 2021.

Ah yes, back to my favourite author though not in the way I expected. I’m nearing the end of my Murakami journey as I close in on reading everything this Japanese author currently has to offer.

Underground is a piece of non-fiction which Murakami isn’t generally known for, however, he felt compelled to write this book after Toyko was the centre of a terrorist attack in March 1995.

During the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995, the Tokyo subway was subject to a sarin gas attack. Sarin is a clear lethal chemical weapon gas that was invented by the Nazis. The attack killed 13 people and injured over 5000 people. An attack of this kind had never happened in Japan during peacetime and it shook the nation with the maliciousness of its attack. The government quickly went to work to determine the perpetrators of this terrible attack. The culprits were a cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo, which means ‘supreme truth’. The cult itself started as a mere yoga and meditation course that wasn’t even a blip on anyone’s radar, however, it had amassed thousands of followers who believed in the doomsday prophecies of the group’s leader Shoko Asahara. Ashara was a blind man with long hair and beard who sat on the personal assets of his followers, raking in millions. He claimed that he was the second coming of Christ and that he could travel through time.

Shoko Asahara, Japan Times, 2018

Aum believed that Armaggedon would come as a result of a war between the United States and Japan and that only members of Aum would survive. Non-members were doomed to eternal hell unless they were killed by members. In five coordinated attacks, members of Aum released the sarin gas on three different subway lines the morning of March 20, 1995. This was not the first time Aum had done gas attacks but it wasn’t until after this attack that Aum was associated with the other incidences.

Murakami, like many Japanese, was struck and affected by the enormity and tragedy of the incident and felt inclined to write about the matter. However, he knew it wasn’t his story to tell so he decided to interview the survivors of the attack. He initially did not want to include any details on the Aum cult or anyone that was involved with them due to the massive amount of media attention that they received, instead of wanting to focus solely on the survivors, however, Murakami felt the scope of the story was incomplete and eventually interviewed a few former Aum members in an updated version of his book.

Murakami gracefully puts together the events of the day with the survivor’s stories. From train station workers to commuters, and medical staff, you piece the horrors of this event together. What is prevalent in the interviews themselves is the long-lasting damage that occurred. Some survivors are left with debilitating physical grievances while others have deep emotional scars and for some a lifetime of disability, suffering, and loss. Murakami also shows the unique mannerisms and behaviours exhibited by Japanese people and how they cope with emotions and turmoils as a society. The addition of the Aum member interviews completed this book as it was provided with a much-needed perspective about the turn of events and the reasons behind why everyday, smart, and seemingly normal people turned to this cult, as well as additional insights into Japanese mentality and society.

If you are new to Murakami, I would not recommend this book to start with just because it is such a stark contrast to the fiction that he normally writes. While this book is excellent and definitely contains Murakami’s tone and style, it would not be the most appropriate introduction to Murakami’s work. It is, however, an important piece of literature to read if you’re interested in learning about Aum and the events of that day.

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

“For a long time, she held a special place in my heart. I kept this special place just for her, like a “Reserved” sign on a quiet corner table in a restaurant. Despite the fact that I was sure I’d never see her again.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 224 pages
Read from November 26, 2020 to December 2, 2020

I just realised that I am four books shy of having read everything by Murakami (23 books according to his website). If that doesn’t show that he is my favourite author then I don’t know what does. No matter what book I pick up by Murakami, regardless of the plot, each book brings me back to the same feelings; comforting, welcoming, and familiar.

South of the Border and West of the Sun is a love story and while much of Murakami’s work have love stories in them it isn’t always the main focus. This one was an exception. Hajime is an only child and he’s a bit hung up on it as he feels that only children are different. During his childhood, he makes a friendship with a girl with a lame leg called Shimamoto. Shimamoto also happens to be an only child and the two of them find a friendship that carries them into adolescence as they spend their time listening to music and talking about the future. The two of them grew apart as they got older, as adolescent friendships often do. However, even when Hajime reaches middle age, is married with children, a successful business owner with a seemly ordinary and happy life, he cannot stop thinking about Shimamoto and what could have been. Shimamoto predictably reappears in his life, igniting a passion in Hajime that he can’t ignore and will risk everything for.

As a reader, Hajime’s obsession becomes your obsession as you anxiously anticipate what will happen when Hajime somehow reunites with Shimamoto. That doesn’t, however, make it any less heartbreaking when his wife finds out what he’s been doing.

“I think you still love me, but we can’t escape the fact that I’m not enough for you. I knew this was going to happen. So I’m not blaming you for falling in love with another woman. I’m not angry, either. I should be, but I’m not. I just feel pain. A lot of pain. I thought I could imagine how much this would hurt, but I was wrong.”

The book itself is a testament to the power of memory and nostalgia, as well as the risks and rewards of indulging in them. The story is also very much about childhood and the dissatisfaction that comes with becoming an adult and the endearing power of first love.

“…..the sad truth is that certain types of things can’t go backward. Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can’t go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that’s how it will stay forever.”

This book, however, lacked the pull that most Murakami books have for me as perhaps it was too love-centred or that I was generally more interested in Shimamoto and her life and thoughts than Hajime’s perspective. I’m usually not bothered by the male-centeredness of most Murakami novels or the lack of real characteristics he gives his female characters as the protagonist’s story feels universally relatable to me. I’m not saying that this character wasn’t, I just found myself more interested in Shimamoto this time around.

It’s a safe book for first-time Murakami readers but it’s definitely not his best. The book itself is still very much a Murakami novel and I still found enjoyment in it.

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

“Ever since I was little my mother had told me, if you don’t know something, go to the library and look it up.”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 96 pages.
Read on July 4, 2019.

This is a perfect example of a book that you should not read on any sort of e-reader. The novella is its own form of art with its unique open-flap cover and varying font formats and sizes throughout its pages. It’s the kind of book that’s hard to say no to when you see on the shelf at a library or bookstore.

The plot of The Strange Library is strange indeed. I mean, most of Murakami’s works are strange but this short novel had a different feel to it. It’s the tamest Murakami book I’ve read so far as well as there are no sexual references within this book. Or of cats. Or of food, for that matter, which are normally typical themes within Murakami’s books.

A boy, whose mother is expecting him home for dinner, gets lured into a strange section of the library by an old man who wants to eat his brains. The man insists that knowledgeable brains taste better so he insists that the boy read tomes of books for a few months before he is going to be eaten. A sheep-man appears to be the old man’s slave as he unwillingly does his bidding out of fear. As time passes the boy, sheep-man, and a mysterious girl plot their escape from the maze of the strange library.

The plot is like a childish nightmare, hence the sheep-man (counting sheep), worrying about not being home in time for dinner, an extensive maze, and cannibalism as they seem like things a young boy would have nightmares about, which is something I didn’t come to see right away. After coming to this realization I came to appreciate the story much more. Having said that, the story is still very different from other things that Murakami has done and I didn’t care for it as much as some of his other books.  It was still a short and pleasurable read and well worth picking up if you’re looking to catch up on a reading goal.