Sputnik Sweetheart | Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki MurakamiSPUTNIK SWEETHEART
Haruki Murakami
translated by Philip Gabriel
Knopf ($23)

by Matt Dube

Haruki Murakami's latest novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, tells the story of two would-be lovers. Sumire, a frustrated novelist and college dropout, meets the thirty-something Miu at a wedding reception, and falls immediately in love with the older woman. When Miu offers Sumire a job as her assistant, Sumire leaps at the chance and allows Miu to remake her tattered beatnik self into a completely organized aide-de-camp. The two vacation in Greece after a trip to Europe to arrange the year's sales for Miu's wine importing business. There, they make their first steps toward physical love, but the next day, Sumire disappears to "the other side." The narrator is called in by Miu to help find Sumire, and his attempts to understand what might have led her to that extreme brings him close to crossing over himself. This is classic Murakami territory, the fizzle of frustration with a world that just can't array itself right, and the erotic longings all three characters feel have a direct, physical weight.

Take, for example, the following passage, about the way Sumire describes her feeling for Miu:

"There was this article in the paper the other day," Sumire said, completely oblivious. "It said lesbians are born that way; there's a tiny bone in the inner ear that's completely different from other women's that makes all the difference. Some small bone with a complicated name. . . . I can't get the idea out of my mind of this little good-for-nothing bone inside my ear. Wondering what shape my own little bone is. . . . When I'm with her that bone in my ear starts ringing. Like delicate seashell wind chimes."

The first third of the book, tracing Sumire and Miu's early courtship, is filled with similarly odd episodes and digressions that highlight Murakami's casual mastery of narrative drift. Later, the overlapping narratives of Sumire's dreams and her conversations with Miu on the Greek Island are dizzyingly subtle, and the strange situation the narrator encounters when he returns from Greece is marvelously understated. In other places, though, Murakami is less satisfying: his record of the Greek Island's recent history is banal, and his attempts to describe the passage of the world where Sumire has gone to meet the perfect version of her lover is heavy-handed and stubbornly un-nuanced. This tale of disappearances is one Murakami returns to frequently in his fiction—as early, in fact, as his first novel translated into English, A Wild Sheep's Chase. But he still hasn't mastered that story here, pushing his language up against what cannot be articulated with feet less fleet than flat.

Murakami's novel is at its best when dealing with thwarted desire and the inability to make things work as they should. It is easy to sympathize with the dream of connecting with someone more perfectly than is possible on this material plane, but in this novel that doesn't seem an entirely viable option. Sumire's possible return at the book's close is well handled, and the frustrated epilogue that greets the narrator on his return to Japan is a powerful reminder that it is not only lovers who cannot connect. Like much of Murakami's longer work, Sputnik Sweetheart comes close to giving his readers the transcendence he offers his characters, but then tellingly forces us to stay right here.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel
Vintage Paperback ($14)

by Jennifer Flanagan

Haruki Murakami is perhaps best-known for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, both complex, intricate novels. In his first non-fiction book, he connects the motifs in his novels—subterranean worlds, convoluted plots—to the theme of Underground.

As in Murakami's fiction, there are many levels to the book. On the surface, it is a series of interviews with victims and victims' family members, followed by interviews with members and former members of Aum Shinrikyo, the sect that carried out the Toyko gas attack. But Underground is more than a powerful forum for people to tell their stories; it also functions as a commentary on Japanese society; an examination of the Japanese psyche; a rebuke of the way in which the media handles tragedy—easily applicable to the United States; and finally, a reminder that this could happen again. Murakami deftly tries to get at the heart of why and how it happened, and compares the Aum followers to Ted Kaczynski; he probably would have included Timothy McVeigh had the book been written after the Oklahoma City bombing.

The insight he offers into Japanese society is considerable. Just the description of a normal commute gives an incredibly vivid sense of Tokyo—trains so crowded that one man speaks of having his briefcase "swallowed up in the torrent of people and swept away. . . . I just had to [let go] or my arm would have been broken. The case just disappeared." During just such a rush hour on March 20, 1995, liquid sarin was released on three trains. The nature of sarin is that once it gets into your clothes, anyone who comes near you is also poisoned from the vapors. Over five-thousand people were treated for sarin gas poisoning, and twelve people died. Many of the survivors continue to experience serious after-effects, from paralysis and loss of speech to constant headaches, loss of vision, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Murakami's desire was to give a clear sense of these victims as people; he provides a brief background sketch of each one, allowing their stories to wander from the personal to the political and back again, telling us that "perhaps it's an occupational hazard of the novelist's profession, but I am less interested in the ‘big picture,' as it were, than in the concrete, irreducible humanity of each individual."

One interesting effect of having the stories placed side-by-side is that they often contain small inconsistencies. Murakami acknowledges this, explaining that he "endeavored to maintain the basic stance that each person's story is true within the context of that story . . . As a result, the stories told by different people who . . . experienced the very same scene often differ . . . but they are presented here with all their contradictions preserved. Because it seems to me that these discrepancies and contradictions say something in themselves. Sometimes . . . inconsistency can be more eloquent than consistency."

When explaining why they didn't offer to help or flee the stations themselves as they witnessed passengers falling down around them, more than one person echoed the comments of Yoko Iizuka: "I knew it was an emergency, but to be honest it didn't occur to me that it was anything really serious. I mean, what can happen? Japan's a supersafe country, isn't it? No guns, no terrorists . . . It never occurred to me that I might be in danger or that I had to get myself out of there." She was one of many passengers who proceeded to her office, finally going to the hospital three hours after being poisoned.

Hospitals had no idea there had been a gas attack, and even after they learned what happened, they often had no idea how to treat victims. One hospital alone received over a thousand patients. Survivors complained of the lack of emergency response, but Nobuo Yanagisawa, the doctor who had treated victims from an earlier sarin attack (Aum had planted sarin one year prior to the Tokyo attack, referred to as the Matsumoto incident, which killed seven people) commented that "to have had five-thousand sarin gas victims and only 12 dead is close to a miracle." Yanagisawa spent the day faxing his findings from that first attack to hospitals across the region. Even so, he remarked "it's almost unthinkable that a doctor would go out of his way to send unsolicited information to a hospital. The first thought is never to say too much, never to overstep one's position. But with the gas attack I had other motives too. One of the seven victims who died in the Matsumoto incident was a medical student here at Shinshu University. . . . That simple fact kept me going."

Murakami refuses the ease of an "us and them/good and evil" attitude, instead exploring what it is in each of us that is reflected in the actions of these home-grown terrorists. His ability to look deeply and honestly at the culture that allowed Aum followers to become so disenfranchised they turned on their own country is both instructive and uncomfortable, especially in the light of our own terrorist incidents. It is also very necessary if we are to learn anything from such tragedies.

Click here to purchase Sputnik Sweetheart at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Underground at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001