Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shibumi by Trevanian

"Shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor it is modesty without pudency. In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wahi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is...how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that."
 
Nicholai Hel aspires to shibumi, though his accomplishments make its attainment somewhat of a challenge. He is fluent in seven languages (although, having learned Chinese on the streets of Shanghai as a child he speaks but doesn't read or write it, and having taught himself Basque from books while in prison he maintains some pronunciation flaws the he can't shed, even after years of living in Basque country). He is a Go master. He is a mystic, who reads auras and has an unusual "primordial perception system" known as proximity sense, which enables him to know not only when someone is coming or has entered a building he's in, but, often, to know who that person is. He's a trained killing machine (and highly paid professional assassin), versed in many types of hand-to-hand combat and martial arts but, most frighteningly, he is master of the art of Naked/Kill and can kill using any ordinary object--a pencil, a paperclip, a folded piece of paper--at hand. And--oh yes--he's a Stage IV lovemaker.


Does he sound too good to be true? Who cares! Nicholai Hel is one of the most fascinating and intriguing characters ever written. His father was a German count, one of his mother's many short-lived boytoys, discarded before Nicholai ever knew him. His mother was an exiled White Russian, a baroness. But despite his genetic Western heritage, Nicholai Hel is Japanese to his core, having been raised in large part by a Japanese General who was quartered in his mother's house during the war. Later, after his mother died and his Japanese foster father reassigned, Nikko was sent to live and study with a Go master, where he mastered strategy, discovered the meaning of his mysticism, and strove to get closer to his aspiration to achieve a state of shibumi.


Shibumi is truly one of the most unusual spy novels I have ever read. There is killing, lots of it--bloody, violent, and in many cases quite creative killing. But in this violent novel, full of terrorists and war criminals and an evil corporate conglomerate that runs the world, giant swatches of gorgeous narrative are given over to Hel's fascinating background, from boyhood on. The story moves between Hel's past (Shanghai, Japan, three years in an American war prison) and his present. The reader is offered extended insight into Japanese culture and character and Basque history and traditions. There are also several long chunks that are devoted to the machinations of "The Mother Company," the aforementioned corporate conglomerate (which--ah, my paranoid heart beats faster at the thought--holds sway not only over all of the oil companies, but many government agencies as well).

Trevanian, like his creation, is a master of many things, not least among them the art of storytelling. He has crafted a beautiful, flowing narrative, rich in detail and intrigue, with characters who--over the top though many of them may be--are convincing. This book shouldn't work. It's impossible to describe it without making it sound cartoon-y and superficial, and yet Shibumi is neither. It deserves to sit on the shelf with the best of the best in the genre, John LeCarre, Charles McCarry, any of the too-few writers who use the framework of a genre to create works of literature.




2 comments:

Jon said...

I loved this book. Read it when it first came out. I was a big Trevanian fan, dating from Eiger Sanction days.

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