Into the inferno

Underground: the Tokyo gas attack and the Japanese psyche

Haruki Murakami<em> Harvill, 352pp, £20<

However prepared you are, the first time you descend into the Tokyo subway during the morning rush hour, it's still a shock. There's nothing frantic, disorderly or impolite when it comes to boarding a train. But the number of people stoically squeezing into each carriage is extraordinary: it's not a question of finding somewhere to stand where you won't step on your neighbours, you are simply thrust up against a flexible wall of silent, smartly dressed, odourless humanity.

Claustrophobic, certainly, but in the event it's an oddly comforting sensation. No one complains or sticks out an awkward elbow; everyone is accommodated, the doors slide shut, the train moves off. Before long, eyes closed, you, too, are drifting off to sleep, securely wedged upright within this rocking cradle - at least until the next stop. It is a very Japanese moment.

The notion that deliberate harm could befall anyone cocooned on such a train is profoundly disturbing. But on the morning of Monday 20 March 1995, five senior members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult board different trains, drop plastic bags to the floor and puncture them with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas. They leave. People in the carriage start to cough. Leaking out of the bags is sarin - the nerve gas that was invented by Nazi scientists and later used by Iraq against Iran and the Kurds. A drop of sarin the size of a pinhead is sufficient to kill a person: within a matter of hours, 12 Tokyo commuters and subway staff will be dead, and another 5,000 will be less seriously affected.

Haruki Murakami wanted to give the victims of the attack their say, and has assembled Underground out of a series of interviews conducted during 1996. Despite the apparently huge nature of such a task, only 60 of the thousands of victims were willing to respond. Some railway staff didn't want to remember the day when everything went wrong. Other people were scared of attracting the attention of Aum or the disapproval of their employers. But Murakami persevered, and talked to rail attendants, hospital doctors, bereaved parents and to people who climbed out of the subway apparently unscathed only to find the sky going dark as their pupils contracted. He interviewed a victim left severely paralysed - in a wheelchair, with no memory, tended to by her brother - and, in the second half of the book, ex-members of the Aum cult.

These testimonies, deftly assembled, are individually powerful; together, they resonate in unexpected ways, as the same events unfold from different perspectives. What did sarin smell like? What was its immediate effect? Well, "more of a sensation, not a smell, a 'suffocatingness'"; "it was as if the air was running out"; "it was as if the air itself had shut down, even time had shut down". Piecing together these overlapping memories, we pick out people whose fate we can anticipate: the poignant images of the station attendants who, as they clean up the sarin-drenched newspapers, are already dying; or the helpful woman who lends a red handkerchief to a driver so that he can wave it as he speeds through traffic to the hospital.

For Murakami, returning to Japan after a long self-imposed exile in America, the Aum cult "shows us a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen". And Murakami candidly confesses that he seized on the gas attack as an opportunity for writing: it gave him a chance to understand and reconnect with Japan "at a deeper level".

His critique of Japan's stifling institutions, the endless machinations of office - "inner-circle-upon-inner-circle" - is as persuasive here as it is in his increasingly political fiction. But we are perhaps less persuaded by his analysis than by his openness - by the way he finds cult members sympathetic misfits, solemnly if misguidedly working out important questions. The terrible flaw he identifies in them is blind faith in another person, in a guru. Even if despicable, the leader of Aum, Shoko Asahara, can be viewed as "a master storyteller who proved capable of anticipating the mood of his times".

Murakami is a different kind of storyteller, who knows there isn't only one narrative to tell. He doesn't practise any form of editorial "triage"; unlike the emergency doctors, he has no need to prioritise, to pass over the less serious cases. Instead, he finds ways to accommodate them all. His attractively modest approach - "words can be practically useless at times, but as a writer they're all I have" - turns this account of a nightmare into a work of consolation.

Julian Loose is an editorial director of Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, We made the people-smugglers rich

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis