Thursday, November 26, 2009
Death Masks by Jim Butcher
"Hell's Bells" count: 16 (plus two editing errors - "break" for "brake" on page 24 and "shield" spelled "shielf" on page 319)
It's the "Hell's bells" that started it. I don't usually make notes on spelling errors in books. I do notice them, of course - they practically jump out at me and dance around - but these are the only ones where I make a note of the page.
Anyway, on to the book. If you've been following the series this far, you know that Harry Dresden, Wizard for Hire, has really gotten himself into deep doo-doo. Aside from his usual problem of taking on cases in each book that end in his getting the everlovin' beat out of him, there's a larger story arc to take in - in this case, the war between the Vampires of the Red Court and the White Council of Wizards. Which, as much as he tried not to, Harry incited and, by all the ancient laws of not killing one's host at a party, he is definitely guilty of. To be fair, the host that he killed, Bianca, was trying to get him to do break the Rules of Hospitality so that she could kill him because he made her so angry way back in Storm Front that she drained one of her favorite servants dry.
It's a complicated world they live in.
So far the book-level arcs and the series-level arc have been pretty distinct, though I suspect that they will become more and more intertwined as the series goes on. Sooner or later they'll merge, and all hell will break loose. Literally, I have no doubt.
In this book, Harry has two major problems to deal with. The first is a duel - the Red Court really wants him dead, and they've sent one of their oldest and most powerful representatives - Don Paolo Ortega - to challenge him to a duel. To, of course, the death. Harry certainly doesn't want to die, but the consequences of not dying might be even worse. Should Harry try to duck out of the duel, hired mercenaries are spread throughout Chicago, ready to take out everyone who means anything to Harry.
If Harry should win, of course, the city will be declared Neutral Ground, and the Vampire-Wizard war will have to rage on elsewhere. Overseeing all this is The Archive, a seven year-old girl who has the entire history of humanity - every word written, every word spoken - in her head. She is a being of enormous power, and can be reduced to giggles by a cute kitty cat. She and her bodyguard/driver Jared Kincaid are there to see that the duel goes according to the rules, and are ready to exact very harsh and fatal punishment to he who violates them.
Again, the White Council, who by all rights should be standing by one of their own, is secretly hoping that Ortega will take Dresden down. The Wizards are losing the war to the vampires, and any excuse they can find to call a stop to the death and destruction is a welcome one. The trouble is, the Vampires may not want to stop....
In the other corner, Dresden has a paying job, one that is uniquely suited to him - find a certain relic for the Vatican. It's priceless, of course. A length of linen cloth with a variety of stains and discolorations that may or may not have the imprint of the resurrected Jesus Christ burned into it. Yes, it's the Shroud of Turin, or as Harry would call it, "The freaking Shroud of Turin." It is, of course, an immensely powerful artifact, regardless of whether or not it really is the burial shroud of Christ.
Magic, as Harry tells us, is greatly about emotion and belief. If you want to do a spell, you have to really believe in that spell. You have to know down to your bones that it's going to work, or it won't work at all. It takes great hatred to make a voodoo doll work, for example, above and beyond the usual magical accoutrements that one needs. Millions of people believe in the divine nature of the Shroud. That gives it power, which can be used for benevolent or, as is the case in this book, malevolent ends.
This is where we meet some of the more dangerous foes in Dresden's universe: the Denarians.
The Denarians (more formally The Order of the Blackened Denarius) are a group of fallen angels who are far, far nastier than the usual breed. There are thirty of them, each bound to a coin, an ancient Roman denarius, which may or may not have been the silver coins paid to Judas for a kiss. When a human touches the coin, the fallen angel is able to make contact and enlist that human as a mortal carrier. Some of the Denarians seduce their hosts, where others just use brute force to subjugate them. Either way, the Denarians are millennia old, nigh immortal, and evil down to their cores.
The leader of these creatures calls himself Nicodemus, and he wants the Shroud so that he can do terrible, terrible things to the world. Not end it, necessarily, but bring about the kind of chaos, panic and disorder that he and his kind thrive on.
Fortunately, Harry has the Knights of the Cross on his side - Michael (whom we have already met), Sanya and Shiro. The three of them are willing to fight the Denarians, but want Harry out of it. Why? Our old friend the half-understood, vaguely worded prophecy. Which, like so many other prophecies throughout history, should be regarded as highly suspect.
There are a lot of layers to this story. We get a fun new group of baddies to deal with, a better understanding of the war between the Vampires and the Wizards, and even another, more human look at John Marcone, the undisputed head of the Chicago underworld, who is also looking for the Shroud. For slightly less nefarious purposes, however.
Each book builds on the ones that came before it, yet each book lives on its own, which was a very good decision on Butcher's part. While you will certainly want to jump straight into the next book upon finishing this one, you don't actually need to. There's a certain amount of closure, with just enough loose ends to fuel your speculation for the next book. I shouldn't have to say this by now, but - go get 'em.
"The Council. Arrogant. As if nothing significant could happen unless a wizard did it."
- Shiro, Death Masks
The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Death Masks on Wikipedia
Death Masks on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher's homepage
Thursday, November 19, 2009
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
What is there to say about this book that hasn't already been said? I mean, it's one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the last fifty years, and is considered a classic of American literature. It's required reading in nearly every high school in America - and at the same time it's a regular guest on the American Library Association's "Most Banned Books" list.
A lot of minds, many better than mine, have turned their thoughts to this book, and have no doubt picked every last shred of meaning, metaphor and symbolism from it. So what's left for me to say about it? Sure, I can talk about how it's a classic coming-of-age tale, about how Scout Finch, a young girl living in a small, insular town in Alabama, saw her world shaped and changed by the goodness and integrity of her father, Atticus. We can look at the family dynamics of the story - a family without a mother, save for the surrogate matriarch roles played first by the maid, Calpurnia, and then by Aunt Alexandria, Atticus' sister. We can analyze how the power in that family structure changes and shifts, and ultimately rests in Atticus' capable hands.
Or we can look at the elements of symbolism in the book - the mad dog, foreshadowing the vicious Bob Ewell, whose hatred for Atticus costs him his life. Or the title, as we wonder throughout the book, "Who is the mockingbird?" Is it a person, even, or could it be something as intangible as Innocence? Of course we find out, in the end - it's the shut-in neighbor, Boo Radley, who must be protected as a mockingbird would be.
And who is Boo, anyway? What does he mean to the America of the 1930s, in which the book was set? Or the 1960s, in which it was published? Or the Aughts, in which I'm reading it? Is he a metaphor for America at that time, too consumed by its troubles to venture out, yet willing to protect those it holds dear, an intentional foreshadowing of the Great War that lays only six years in the future? Or is he the ghostly antithesis of Atticus Finch, a man who does the right thing only once in his life, rather than every day?
It's also a defense of the American legal system. The trial of Tom Robinson is hopelessly unwinnable, but Atticus knows that it is something to be marveled at that Tom even gets a chance. A thin chance, yes, but in so many other times and places, Tom would have just been killed right on the scene of his alleged crime, and no one would have done anything about it. But in America, the courts are the great levelers. Even a black man, who in that time and that place was a citizen only on sufferance, can still have his day in court. He had very little chance, but with a lawyer like Atticus, who believes wholeheartedly in the purity of Law, he had a better chance than most. "Our courts have their faults," he says, "as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal." Without this system, however, even a man of Atticus' talents and integrity wouldn't have been able to help Tom Robinson.
I guarantee - someone, somewhere has thought about all of these things, and has probably written more about them than I ever could. And with more passion and skill. So I'll just write about what the book made me think, and hope I can put that into words that sound good to all of you.
I want to be Atticus Finch when I grow up.
As much as the book may be narrated by Scout, and Boo Radley haunts it like an unquiet ghost, the story is about Atticus - a good man in a small town who tries to do everything he can to make his part of the world a better place.
The central event of this book, which echoes from first page to last, is a trial in which Atticus has to do an impossible thing - defend a black man from charges of raping a white woman. By taking this case, Atticus knowingly risks his reputation, his safety and his life, as well as those of his family. It's hard for us here, in an age when the United States has a black President, to truly understand just how racially broken the country used to be. Not that everything is hunky-dory now - anyone who claims that the election of President Obama somehow solved the problem of race in America has a lot of re-thinking to do. But it was so much worse back then.
Atticus Finch is a man with an unshakable moral compass, who knows the difference between right and wrong and how to make sure he does the right thing. He knows that he is a role model not only for his children, but for the people of his town - in several parts of the book, he's likened to a savior."We are so rarely called on to be Christians," says Miss Maudie, a rather progressive neighbor of the Finch's, "but when we are, we've got men like Atticus to go for us." He exhorts his children to spend time in another's skin, to really look at the world from their perspective, in order to understand why they do what they do. He values intellect and reason over emotion and fighting, but is not afraid to take action when it's absolutely necessary. He bears an immense responsibility on his shoulders, not only for the people of his town - black and white - but for his family, that he may raise his children to be good people as well.
Probably my favorite Atticus moment in the book comes in chapter eleven, with the redemption of Mrs. Dubose. A cantankerous old woman living down the street, Mrs. Dubose is a terror to Scout and her brother Jem. She eventually provokes Jem into a fury, whereupon he destroys her camellias, the punishment for which is that Jem must go to her home and read to her for a month. He does, as he's Atticus' son and therefore keeps his promises, but it's not a pleasant duty. She drifts off into nearly comatose states by the end of their reading sessions, which last longer and longer as what Jem believes must be further punishment for his crime.
It is only later, after Mrs. Dubose dies, that Atticus reveals the real reason Jem was sent to go read to her - so he could help her overcome a crippling morphine addiction before she died. She wanted to die free of her burden, and Atticus wanted his son to see what it means to truly be brave. It was important that Jem understand, before the trial got into full swing, that, "It's when you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do." Mrs. Dubose won, thanks to Atticus, and his son learned what it means to be brave.
The only real criticism I can think of with regards to Atticus Finch is that he's too good. It's hard to find a flaw in the man, other than his nearly unbending insistence on doing the right thing, even if it should put his family in danger. He's kind of like Superman in that regard - his greatest flaw is his unwillingness to compromise on what is right, even if it hurts those close to him.
Of all the flaws one could have, though, that's not too bad.
I am reminded that one of the greatest questions of philosophy is "Why should we do good?" Atticus knows why. Because it's the only thing he can do and still live with himself. He doesn't need to justify what he does to anyone else. He doesn't need to convince anyone that he's doing what is right. He only needs to convince himself. As long has he can look his children in the eyes, he knows that what he's doing is right, and that's all he requires. And perhaps he is an idealist, yes. But he's an idealist who lives up to his ideals, who lives through those ideals every day. He knows that what he does won't necessarily change his little town, much less the world, but he does it anyway. Because that's what living a good and honest life means, and that's what I learned from Atticus Finch.
What surprises me, honestly, is that this is the only book Harper Lee's written. It's so rich, so gripping, just so damn good that it's hard to believe she never had another story she wanted to tell. Her entry in Wikipedia says that she's written some essays and started a few novels, but never finished them, which saddens me. But then, perhaps some writers have countless stories in them - some of them great, some of them not - and others just have one. And in Lee's case, it was a humdinger.
If you're going into high school and you're reading this - you will be required to read this book at some point. I know how irritating it is to be forced to read a book, and I know that anything an adult tells you is good must automatically suck. Nevertheless, I'm going to ask you to trust me on this one and give it a fair shake. There's a lot to learn from this book, and it'll stick with you for years.
If you haven't read this one since high school - read it again. It's far better than you remember.
"The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."
- Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikipedia
Harper Lee on Wikipedia
To Kill a Mockingbird on Amazon.com
To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikiquote
To Kill a Mockingbird at the Encyclopedia of Alabama
The Boo Radleys on Wikipedia
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Shutting out the Sun - How Japan Created its own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger
One of the things you learn about Japan when you get here - and you learn it pretty quickly - is that there can be a vast difference between the appearance of Japan and the reality of it. The faces that people show you, or even that the city shows you, is not necessarily their true face.
Take Kyoto as an example: it prides itself on being a city of traditional culture, the touchstone of all that is Truly Japanese. When you first see it, though, you think, "Really? Because it looks like a big ol' jumbled-up city to me." And it does - aside from the temples, which remain more or less relegated to the edges of the city, the vestiges of Old Japan have been swept away in favor of concrete and glass. Kyoto Station is a glimmering lump in the middle of the city, and Kyoto Tower, as many have said, is a stake through its heart. But ask anyone and we'll say, "Kyoto is a beautiful city." Because that's the way it's supposed to be.
This is how it is to live in Japan. There is a gulf between the true nature of things and the way we want them to be. For someone born and raised here, this kind of thinking is taught from birth, and without the ability to divide oneself in twain, life in Japanese society can be very difficult. These two states have names, too - tatemae is the face that you present to the world, the one that everyone expects of you. Honne is your "true self," the feelings and thoughts that you hold in reserve so as not to cause conflict with the greater society around you.
The origins of this dichotomy are unclear, although there are those who attribute it to a culture with roots in collective agriculture. If your life and the lives of everyone in your village depends on getting the rice crop in, you have to learn to hold back certain feelings or desires for the good of the group. You sublimate yourself into the group structure, because that's what has to be done. So, tatemae isn't a lie, or a deliberate performance designed to deceive people. It's a bargain between oneself and society - "This is what society needs me to be? Fine. I can be that." What remains is honne, the inner self that society cannot touch, but can never see.
So what happens when someone can't hold up their end of this social contract? What happens when the modern world makes demands of people that this ancient compact can't handle? Well, that's when things start to go wrong....
For many years, this bargain between the individual and society worked, mainly because society kept up its end of the deal. People were protected, employed, and given a place in the world, whether it was the feudal culture of the Edo era, the wartime mobilization of the 30s and 40s, or the indomitable Japan Inc. of the post-war years. As the world progressed, however, it soon became evident that the old ways weren't enough. Japan needed to change, or face stagnation and irrelevance.
In this book, Zielenziger tries to figure out how Japan got into the state it's in - a decade and a half of stagnation, with no end in sight, and the very real possibility of a slide into graying irrelevance by the middle of the century. To do so, he looks first on the human scale, at the people who have given up on Japan's social contract - the hikkikomori.
Like so many other things Japanese, the hikkikomori phenomenon is said to be unique to Japan. Not quite agoraphobics, not quite dropouts or depressives, the hikkikomori are people - usually men - who have given up on the world. They usually live in a single room, often in the homes of parents who enable their hermit lifestyle, and refuse to come out. They sit in there and read, or watch TV, or think. They see no place for themselves in the outside world, and so they give up on it. The men that Zielenziger interviewed suggested that the outside world was too much for them. In many cases they were bullied by others - a pattern of social control that is unfortunately ingrained here - or they simply looked at their parents and thought, "Is this what I will become?"
An American child, faced with the knowledge that he doesn't fit with the rest of the world, will probably see it as an opportunity to shape his own identity. A hikkikomori sees it as a personal failure. He knows how Japanese society works, and rather than blame the world for not accepting him, he blames himself for not being able to fit in. Thus, retiring from the world is seen as the only option available, other than suicide. Some hikkikomori spend years in their rooms, refusing to speak even with their parents, who - often out of a sense of shame or the nurturing love known as amae - support their boys' choice of lifestyle.
At the other end are the people who give their identity over to an outside source. In more dangerous cases, this outside source might be a cult, like the Aum Shinrinkyo group who carried out the deadly sarin attack against the Tokyo subway in 1995. A more benign manifestation, however, is brand mania. Zielenziger talks to women who identify themselves through the brands they buy. These people will spend money they don't have in order to get a bag from Louis Vuitton or Gucci or Chanel. They distinguish themselves with their brand identity, willingly giving up their own in the process. In a country where one can no longer trust the government to look after your best interests, or the media to tell you the truth, or business to give you a job, putting all your faith in Louis Vuitton - with its worldwide reputation for quality - seems to be a good idea.
It's a nation in crisis, according to Zielenziger. It's a country that's gone from feudalism to full modernity in only a century and a half, but the culture hasn't changed nearly as much as the country has. It's a bustling, 21st-century nation built on a foundation that was laid in the 17th century, and things are starting to fall apart. It's a country that puts society before the individual, but that premise is cracking under the weight of a world that values individuality. It's a place where responsibility is distributed and accountability doesn't exist, where mistakes go unexamined lest they bring shame upon those who made them, and where the past is a thing that can be easily ignored if it troubles you. Zielenziger believes that the underlying social structure of Japan is holding it back, leading the entire country to another withdrawal from the world. Much like the hikkikomori that no one likes to talk about, Japan may one day find itself alone and isolated, not knowing its place in the world and not knowing how it can get back to what it used to be.
The book is quite a read, going from small one-on-one interviews to historical and sociological analyses, but it is overwhelmingly negative in tone. Zielenziger isn't wrong, necessarily, but he is of the mind-set that Japan is irrevocably screwed and that only Western cultural intervention can save it.
He lays the hikkikomori problem - and the problem of parasite singles, NEETs, and all the other dysfunctional youth - at the foot of Japan's collectivist culture, as well as the intense bond of amae that exists between the parent and child. While he doesn't say it in so many words, he does imply that the traditional social structure of Japan is simply incapable of keeping Japan competitive in the modern era. He believes that Western values, especially those stemming from Christianity, are what Japan needs to survive.
The bit about Christianity seemed to come from left field, but he does make a case for it. Christianity, he believes, places the onus of salvation on the individual. It is a person's works (or faith) that ensure his place in the afterlife. This focus on one's personal responsibility, and ultimate judgment, fosters a Self that is harder to suppress. From that strong sense of individuality, a culture can foster more competition, thereby preventing stagnation.
There's a long, not entirely interesting chapter on Korea that he uses to illustrate this point. Unlike Japan, Korea - once called "The Hermit Kingdom" - found itself facing economic turmoil and got themselves out of it. Not because Korean ways were better, but because they knew that if they stuck to their traditions they'd be screwed. Korea is a nation strongly influenced by Christianity, and the individuality that Christianity fosters, suggests Zielenziger, is what gave Korea the courage to risk social turmoil for the betterment of their nation.
There may be something to this, but I doubt that adopting Christianity en masse will save Japan from Zielenziger's dire future. Honestly, it was tough to stay objective while reading this, mainly because of the gulf between what I see, having lived here for the better part of a decade, and how Zielenziger describes the place. If I didn't know better, I would have read this and thought that Japan was a zombie nation, populated either by hermits or soulless consumers. From what I've seen, I know that this is not the case.
Granted, I haven't completely immersed myself in the culture, mainly because that's an extremely difficult thing for a non-Japanese to do. Most of the people I talk to are my students, and people with the desire and the resources to study English are probably not an accurate cross-section of the country. So I don't claim to have any more insight into the Japanese mind than Mr. Zielenziger does, but from my experience it seems that all hope is not lost. Yes, the government is a faceless bureaucracy, the media is completely complacent and the corporate community that once offered jobs for life has vanished. But Japan has proved resilient in the past, adapting to great changes that were thrust upon it from the outside. And a quick look at Japanese history shows that, when the times need it, people emerge to challenge the established order.
That's what Japan needs now. Someone - or, more effectively, a group of someones - to stand up, stick out and risk themselves for the betterment of their country. It won't be easy - revolution never is - but it needs to be done. Perhaps one day, instead of shutting themselves in their rooms, there might be young men and women who take to the streets and show Japan that there is value in the individual. I hope I get to see it.
"To survive in Japan, you have to kill off your own original voice."
Kaz Ueyama, Shutting Out the Sun
Michael Zielenziger on Wikipedia
Michael Zielenziger's Homepage
Shutting Out the Sun on Amazon.com
Hikkikomori at Wikipedia
Amae at Wikipedia
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Underground - The Tokyo Gas Attack & the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami
On March 20, 1995, in the middle of the morning rush hour, the Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed a terrorist attack on the subways of Tokyo. Five men on five different trains unleashed sarin gas in the subway system, which shut down most of the city, injured at least 5,000 people, and left 12 dead. It was the single worst attack on Japan since the end of World War Two, and it gripped the nation.
I remember hearing about this, but I don't remember giving it too much attention - I mean, when was I ever going to have to know much about Japan, right? In the light of our own terrorist woes in the US, I wish I had.
Haruki Murakami is best known for being a fiction writer. I've read a few of his books, and they're all really interesting. He has a very strange mind, and he's a good enough writer that he can often successfully avoid giving his characters names, something that still surprises me. This time, however, he decided to turn his hand to non-fiction, chronicling the events of what was a shocking blow to his home country.
In his introduction to this book, he explains why he decided to write it. Like many people, he heard about the attacks while he was living abroad, and thought, "Oh, that's terrible." And then he tried to put it out of his mind. But it wouldn't stay there. A woman had written a letter to a magazine about her husband. He had been on the subway that morning, and had been injured by the sarin. His injuries had impaired him to the point where he had been forced to quit his job. Not only because of the physical effects of being gassed, but also because he had become an outcast at work. People would look at him and whisper about the "weirdo" who had been on the subway that day. He was, probably, a reminder of what people wanted to forget. He had, by no will of his own, become an outsider, and that pressure led him to quit his job - what Murakami calls a "double violence." First by the sarin, then by Japan.
From that point, Murakami took to wondering what really happened to people that morning. Not what the newspapers and TV said, but the stories of the people who had actually been on the trains.
So he began taking interviews. Of the hundreds he contacted, he got a total of 60 people to agree to talk to him. This is definitely a huge difference between Japanese and Americans. After September 11th, I'm sure people were falling all over themselves to tell their stories, or to talk about their dead friends and relatives.
In Japan, people were eager to forget. They didn't want this nosy journalist stirring things up again. It's easier to put things in the past, to say, "It can't be helped" and go on with one's life.
Fortunately for us, Murakami got some people to talk, and for that we have this book.
He divides the stories into subway lines and stations, and it's interesting to see how peoples' stories are slightly different at times, where one interviewee and another interacted. He gives the histories of people, and provides a narrative of what was happening to people on that morning - where they were going, what they were doing and thinking, and how they felt. Some people thought they were sick, others thought that some kind of cleaning fluid had splashed. A few guessed that it was an attack.
Some of the best stories come from the station personnel. So far, my experience with the guys in the uniforms who run the stations is that they all say "Arigatou gozaimas" whenever you put your ticket through the gate. These guys, though, had to take charge of a subway system that was under attack by an odorless, invisible weapon, without knowing who had done it or why. Unlike firemen or policemen, these guys had to deal with a situation for which they had likely never been trained.
The civilian stories are also fascinating, as they tell how they tried to help, and they vented their frustration with the lack of help. They talked about what they were thinking as the symptoms set in - dimming of vision, nausea, lack of coordination.... One interesting commonality is how many people kept trying to go to work. They put down their symptoms to any number of garden-variety maladies - anemia, lack of a proper breakfast, general stress. Half-blind, unable to walk straight, many of them still made it to their workplaces, not knowing the danger they were in until they heard about sarin on the news.
Sarin is a nerve gas, originally designed by Nazis, it is one of the most powerful gasses out there. Iraq used it to great effect against Iran in the 80s, and could well still have some floating around. According to the translator's notes, a drop of sarin the size of a pinhead is enough to kill a person.
The cult members who set this thing off had liters of the stuff. Fortunately, they cut it with another liquid (and even pure sarin doesn't evaporate well) which cut its lethality. Somewhat.
Perhaps the tiny number of fatalities - 12 - were due to the lower potency of the gas. It certainly wasn't because the Tokyo or Japanese governments were any good at dealing with disasters. Interviews with doctors at local hospitals talked about the utter confusion that ensued after the attacks. None of them were briefed on the situation, they didn't know what kind of gas had been used, and therefore couldn't treat it properly. Worse yet, in some cases, they didn't even know it was a gas. In some hospitals, sarin victims were admitted to the emergency rooms, where the sarin in their clothes began affecting the ER nurses and doctors.
They figured it was probably cyanide. One doctor, who had happened to have been at a seminar on a previous sarin attack in Japan, recognized the symptoms of sarin poisoning and faxed the information around the city's hospitals, apparently a very unusual act by a doctor in Japan. Like many organizations in Japan, hospitals are loathe to share information without going through the proper channels, even in an event such as this. But this fits into the Japanese mind-set as well: to take such initiative is to invite criticism. Should the decision be the wrong one, it would bring shame down on everyone involved. Thankfully there were some people whose minds were more concerned with saving lives than saving face. Not enough, though. The Tokyo Bureau of Health didn't chime in until 5:00 PM, nearly eight hours after the attack.
One doctor claims that the only reason so few people died was because of the efforts of individual doctors and paramedics. The official organizations were more or less useless, much like they were after the Kobe earthquake in 1992.
However it happened, the death toll was kept low, but the effects lingered on. Sarin has long-lasting physical effects, weakening the victim for years to come. Even more, there were the psychological effects that come with any event of mass terrorism.
I saw an article in an Australian magazine which interviewed some people who had been photographed during the burning and destruction of the World Trade Center. None of them were happy, none of them were leading good lives. Months later, the attack still lingered in their minds and their lives, effectively continued on. The same was, and probably is, true in Japan after the Tokyo subway attack.
After the publication of the first edition, Murkami decided that he had a few more interviews to do. It's one thing to know what happened to the victims, but one also has to wonder: Why would anyone do such a thing?
So he went to interview current and former members of the Aum cult, and find out why they joined, what attraction the cult held for them, and what they knew of the cult's plans. After the attacks, most of the Japanese media were treating Aum simply as "The Enemy," a faceless group whose members were, in the grand Japanese tradition, not individuals but simply facets of the whole.
Aum, under its leader, Asahara, worked like most cults do: They recruited people with doubts, misgivings and unreconciled views of the world. Many of the people Murakami interviewed were highly intelligent people who felt, from childhood, that the world they lived in made no sense to them. Others were lost, confused, who felt unhinged and disconnected. Such people are classic candidates for cults, and Aum took them in.
In Aum, they tell Murakami, there was no fear of responsibility, no worries about their choices for the future, because their future was preordained. If anything bad happened, it was just bad karma falling away. For some, Aum was just a new way to look at life, a new way to go through life that offered less uncertainty and pain than conventional life.
For others, though, it was a political movement. It was a group whose goals could be achieved by murder, both individual and mass. The interviews are interesting, because you can understand why the lifestyle of Aum might be attractive to people, if not very practical.
Murakami wanted to point out, by interviewing the Aum members, that this cult didn't appear out of nowhere. It arose in Japan, made up of Japanese men and women. It was a reaction to Japanese society, a signal of the illnesses that permeate it. It was not, and should never have been treated as, something separate.
There's not a lot of judgment in this book, as that was not Murakami's goal. He did what he set out to do - tell the stories of people who had been there, who had experienced the terrors of the sarin attack. It's always interesting to hear real stories, and always good.
One has to wonder, though.... Terrorism is not all bombs and airplanes and Arabs. These terrorists - and they do fit the bill - were people who looked like everyone else, men in suits, carrying briefcases and a newspaper-wrapped bundle each. No one would have given them a second thought.
Could this happen in America? Probably. We still haven't found whoever was mailing the anthrax around, at least not at the writing of this review. It would be very possible for a group of men to board the subways in New York at rush hour, gather their resolve, and unleash an attack at least as destructive as the World Trade Center attack was. And the answer isn't "More Security" - that's closing the barn doors after the horses have not only left, but they've started their own fertilizer reprocessing plant and planned to blow up the Kentucky Derby. The interviews in this book suggest that terrorism is a societal issue, not a security one. If we want to stop people from doing violence to us, we need to find out what drives them to do so. Remember: the majority of terrorist acts carried out in the United States were not done by al-Qaeda. They were done by Americans, just as the Tokyo attacks were done by Japanese.
No matter what our politicians and police tell us, we're never completely safe. Japan learned that in '95. We need to learn it as well.
"We need to realize that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they're not disadvantaged; they're not eccentrics. They are the people who live average lives (and maybe, from the outside, more than average lives) who live in my neighborhood. And in yours.
"Maybe they think about things a little too seriously. Perhaps there's some pain they're carrying around inside. They're not good at making their feelings known to others and are somewhat troubled. They can't find a suitable means to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. That might very well be me. It might be you."
- Haruki Murakami, Underground
Haruki Murakami at Wikipedia
Underground at Wikipedia
Tokyo sarin gas attack on Wikipedia
Aum Shinrikyo on Wikipedia
Haruki Murakami's website
Underground at Amazon.com