I’d like to recommend a book that I began reading before the WTC attack, one that I’ve returned to since and have found to be helpful and moving. Haruki Murakami is a Japanese novelist, and one of my favorite authors. In 1997 he wrote a non-fiction book–his first–called Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.
Rather than write a true-crime sort of book that examines the Aum Shinrikyo cult and their sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, Murakami takes a different approach. The book is a collection of first-person testaments by people who were on the subway that day. Survivors, in other words.
Their accounts are not merely blow-by-blow stories of that morning on the trains. Murakami introduces us to each person, describing his or her life, family, job, and so on. Their statements talk about the mundanities of their daily life, the attack itself, and what their lives have been like since that time.
The stories are moving, harrowing, and often beautiful. The diversity of experiences and lives lived is striking, as is their differing viewpoints on what the experience has meant to them. Some still suffer serious medical problems as a result of the nerve gas, while others bear mental scars from that day.
Throughout, Murakami’s grace and compassion are on quiet display. Very little of the writing is his per se, though in editing the dozens of interviews he conducted down to first-person narratives, his fluid style and heartfelt emotion over this tragedy is evident.
Two consecutive pieces are especially powerful, those of a man and his younger sister. She was on the train that day, and he was not. At the time of the interview, she was still hospitalized, almost completely paralyzed, and with no memory of her life before the attack. Yet she has gone from a vegetative state to a point where she is making new memories, and can carry out simple conversations. Her brother’s account comes first, in which he speaks of his great love and respect for his little sister and how kind a person she always was. He recounts dropping her off at the station that morning, and then the ensuing confusion and sorrow as she entered the hospital. His punishing schedule of commuting to work and to the hospital to visit her is heart-rending–the man is slowly being beaten down by his responsibilities. In the second account, Murakami takes a rare position as narrator to describe his visit to the woman in the hospital. Before the attack, her favorite place to go was Tokyo Disneyland. Now she seems to have no memories of those trips, but her family has spoken of them to her so often that she has become determined to go there again. Disneyland exists only to her as a distant concept, almost a religious one, not anything she really has any practical understanding of. It is her equivalent of paradise, an elysium she aspires to as best as her now-reduced faculties allow.
I am not done reading this book. Reading it before the WTC attack, I found it moving but also sort of curious, like an odd trinket. The cultural differences between America and Japan are vivid in these stories, tales of people desperate to go back to work lest they somehow fail in their responsibilities to society. It was in some respects a travelogue of a mental space rather than a physical one.
Picking it up again now, the people seem much more real and present. Where before I saw differences, and felt a sort of alienation from their way of life, now I only see commonality. A family, a young worker, a retired bank manager–their lives are so ordinary, so familiar. Their attempts to find the goodness in their experience, to cherish the moments that have meant to much in the midst of such destruction, are inspiring and saddening at the same time.
When I think of the recent attack, I have a recurring image in my mind. I see a vast grassland, a wave of green that meets crisply against the blue sky. In the grass are five thousand empty chairs. They are not identical. Every chair is different. New and old, office chairs, moth-eaten armchairs from a thrift store, aging chairs covered in fresh fabrics, chairs worn smooth from familiarity like a river stone, chairs from kindergarten cafeterias and corporate board rooms. All sit in silence, as the wind gently blows the grass like the waves of an ocean. Slowly night falls.
I encourage you to get a copy of Murakami’s book. So many of us are so far removed from what we are seeing on the television, nowhere near the devastation and perhaps not knowing someone who was there that day. Murakami has written a book that introduces you to one life after another, a panoply of humans who have lived through the maelstrom but live with it still every day of their lives.
You can order the book from Amazon.com. Get a copy and read it, and while you’re there send some money to the Red Cross. Then let Murakami take you by the hand and show you humanity, in all its varied forms, persevering through crisis.