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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What I'm reading (#31)

In spring of 1995, five members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult planted plastic bags full of sarin (a powerful and deadly nerve agent) at different spots in the Tokyo subway system.  Twelve people died, fifty were seriously injured, and an estimated 5,000 had temporary injury (predominantly vision problems).  The perpetrators -- all of whom survived -- were arrested, and all but one sentenced to death, along with several other leaders of the cult.  (The one that was not sentenced to death is now serving life imprisonment.)

Haruki Murakami, the author of over a dozen amazing and surreal books, took a break from his fiction writing to look at how the attack happened, and (insofar as it is possible to discern) why it happened.  The result was Underground, a gripping, intense, and sometimes difficult to read series of interviews with the survivors, and an unflinching look at the personalities and motivations of the perpetrators.

Underground is written with the sterling clarity of Murakami's other works.  It leaves you a little breathless -- both at how such random, thoughtless evil can exist in the world, and also at the selflessness and courage of the people who risked their own lives to save subway passengers stricken by the poison.  He doesn't sugar coat the facts; if you read it, prepare yourself for horrifying details of what it was like to experience being hit with nerve gas.  It's not pretty, it's not reassuring, but it is some of the best-written non-fiction I've ever read.

Crime reporting is, in a lot of ways, a paradox.  On the one hand, it gives the reader a lens into the minds of criminals, allows you some measure of understanding of how they tick.  On the other, it shows you just how far these people are from normalcy, and how unreachable and incomprehensible true sociopathy is.  It is telling that not a single one of the Aum Shinrikyo murderers has shown any remorse, and several still consider the cult's leader, Shoko Asahara, as having the key to all wisdom.

It's not a comfortable read, but it is brilliantly done.  I will, however, urge you not to make the mistake I made.  I read this while on a trip to visit my publisher in Arkansas.  And I can tell you from my experience, this is not a book you want to read while stuck on public mass transportation with a bunch of strangers.

Just for what it's worth.

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