In Tokyo, on 20 March 1995, 12 people died and thousands were injured by a series of gas attacks on subway trains, perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Haruki Murakami, a well known Japanese novelist, investigates through interviews with both victims and cult members the ‘implications for the’ Japanese psyche’, posing the question: ‘Where did all that come from?’
Answers are not explored convincingly, however. There is too much passive recording of interviewees, and too little analysis from the author. We have the impression of Japan as a straight-jacketed, depressingly conformist culture, summed up by a subway employee: ‘Work means you fulfil your duties.’
Interviews with Aum members merely illustrate general tendencies of cults — obsessive, leader-oriented millenarian — rather than probing the motivations of this particular group. The reader is left frustrated by a dull book which delivers less than it promises.
Edmund White’s engrossing eighth novel opens in a sensual 1989 Paris. The central character, Austin, a ‘Europeanised American’ homosexual, is on the verge of new love with Julien, a young, still-married French architect. The third-person narrative lyrically evokes a sense of grand bohemian life. Well-drawn male characters are rather Jamesian, with the addition of a full and explicit sex life. Tension is created in The Married Man by the clash of values between Austin’s European aesthetic and the politically correct puritan ideologies of America, where he teaches for a year. A fellow lecturer advises: ‘Just imaglne you’re in China during the days of the Cultural Revolution.’
Returning to Europe, he travels with his now divorced partner, and sometimes with an ex-lover, to Venice, Rome, and Morocco. The ancient permanence of these landscapes becomes a poignant reminder of the transience of human love blighted by Aids. A moving and quietly powerful novel.
The French writer Michel Houellebecq’s explosive second novel is set in contemporary France ‘in the midst of the suicide of the West’. It is a tirade against liberal, individualistic values. The loose plot recounts the lives of two middle-aged half brothers — Mlchel, an introverted molecular biologist, and frustrated ex-teacher Bruno, who is constantly in search of sexual satisfaction. Both grew up in the wake of the Slxties political and sexual revolutions.
Philosophical insertions, reflections on anthropology and false gurus, and discussions about literature deliberately dismantle the conventional form of the novel in order to say Big Things about Western culture. The humorously obscene commentary about sex lightens the load. Clearly, to the Left Bank type characters, oral sex is the new art form in France, and fellatio is as prevalent as café au lait. Some will rail against Houlellebecq’s show-off nihilism, but everyone will ponder the conclusions of the extraordinary Atomised.