Crown Publishing, 1979, 480 pages
Nicholai Hel, born in the ravages of World War I China to an aristocratic Russian mother and a mysterious German father, raised in the spiritual gardens of a Japanese Go Master, survives the destruction of Hiroshima to emerge as the world's most artful lover and its most accomplished and highly paid assassin. Genius, mystic, master of language and culture, Hel's secret is his determination to attain a rare kind of personal excellence, a state of effortless perfection: shibumi.
Now living in an isolated mountain fortress with his magnificent Eurasian mistress, Hel faces his most sinister enemy, a super-monolith of espionage and monopoly. The battle lines are drawn: ruthless power and corruption on one side and on the other, shibumi.
I had never even heard of Trevanian, a bestseller in the 70s and 80s, until I picked up Shibumi because my current obsession, go, features prominently in it. Also, since I enjoy Ian Fleming despite his flat-out shitty writing at times, I thought a book about a Japanese-raised Russian super-assassin named Nicholai Hel had to be fun. And it was.
I actually find the author himself almost as interesting as the book, though. Rodney William Whitaker, aka "Trevanian" (and several other pen names) was apparently quite an accomplished writer, but I get the impression that his bestselling action thrillers were an expression of contempt for the people who made them bestsellers. His first book, The Eiger Sanction, was a parody of spy thrillers, and people so didn't get the parody that they made a Clint Eastwood movie out of it. So he wrote an even more blatant parody called The Loo Sanction.
Then he wrote Shibumi, which seems meant to be taken seriously, but I think this time Trevanian was just being more subtle. In the author's own words:
“As you know, 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 wabi, 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.”
This is the philosophy ostensibly subscribed to by the main character, Nicholai Hel, a nationless son of an expatriate Russian noblewoman and a Prussian military officer, born in Shanghai and sent to Japan when World War II begins. Much of the first half of the book is about Nikko's early life. It's quite interesting and if Nikko quickly assumes all the attributes of a Gary Stu (he learns to play go like a master, he learns "naked kill" techniques that make him a deadly assassin; he learns to make love so skillfully that he literally ruins all other men for any woman he sleeps with), he does so in such an interesting and elegantly written way that you become immersed in the story despite yourself.
What makes Shibumi particularly interesting, though, is that between the lines, (and later in the book, right out in the open), Trevanian is mocking the reader.
When his teacher, Otake, gives Hel some final advice in the face of Japan's looming defeat, one can hear the author's voice as well as Otake's:
"Your scorn for mediocrity blinds you to its vast primitive power. You stand in the glare of your own brilliance, unable to see into the dim corners of the room, to dilate your eyes and see the potential dangers of the mass, the wad of humanity. Even as I tell you this, dear student, you cannot quite believe that lesser men, in whatever numbers, can really defeat you. But we are in the age of the mediocre man. He is dull, colorless, boring -- but inevitably victorious. The amoeba outlives the tiger because it divides and continues in its immortal monotony. The masses are the final tyrants. See how, in the arts, Kabuki wanes and Nô withers while popular novels of violence and mindless action swamp the mind of the mass reader. And even in that timid genre, no author dares to produce a genuinely superior man as his hero, for in his rage of shame the mass man will send his yojimbo, the critic, to defend him. The roar of the plodders is inarticulate, but deafening. They have no brain, but they have a thousand arms to grasp and clutch at you, drag you down."
"Do we still speak of Gô, Teacher?"
"Yes. And of its shadow: life."
"What do you advise me to do then?"
"Avoid contact with them. Camouflage yourself with politeness. Appear dull and distant. Live apart and study shibumi. Above all, do not let him bait you into anger and aggression. Hide, Nikko."
"General Kishikawa told me almost the same thing."
"I do not doubt it. We discussed you at length his last night here. Neither of us could guess what the Westerner's attitude toward you will be, when he comes. And more than that, we fear your attitude toward him. You are a convert to our culture, and you have the fanaticism of the convert. It is a flaw in your character. And tragic flaws lead to... " Otake-san shrugged.
Nicholai nodded and lowered his eyes, waiting patiently for his teacher to dismiss him. After a time of silence, Otake-san took another mint drop and said, "Shall I share a great secret with you, Nikko? All these years I have told people I take mint drops to ease my stomach. The fact is, I like them. But there is no dignity in an adult who munches candy in public."
"No shibumi, sir."
"Just so." Otake-san seemed to daydream for a moment. "Yes. Perhaps you are right. Perhaps the mountain mist is unhealthy. But it lends a melancholy beauty to the garden, and so we must be grateful to it."
How are we to take this? Trevanian wrote a popular novel about violence and mindless action which is mocking stories of violence and mindless action. The plot and the main character are very reminiscent of the sort of men's adventure novels that were popular in the 70s. James Bond, Remo Williams, Mack Bolan, etc., dudes who are awesome unstoppable killing and sexing machines. Nicholai Hel is like the Ur-Westerner, or the Anti-Westerner. He is nearly perfect at everything, because he's an aristocratic white Russian who grew up learning Ancient Secrets of the Orient. He hates the West, because Westerners are ignorant, savage children who viciously and barbarically bombed Japan, where he was living, and made his friends sad, what with all the bombing, before which they were just minding their own business playing go.
After the war, Hel leaves Japan because it is corrupted by Western influence. Yes, the white Russian dude is too Japanese for Japan. He goes to the Basque country instead, and just like he was so awesome in Japan that all the Japanese considered him an honorary Japanese, the Basques (possibly the only people in Europe as ethnocentric as the Japanese) accept him as an honorary Basque. He's the world's most highly paid assassin and the only Westerner to achieve "Stage Four" lovemaking (yes, this is actually described).
So, on the surface Shibumi is like a Hollywood marriage of Eric Van Lustbader and James Clavell. But I really liked Trevanian's prose. He blends a lot of fairly sophisticated ideas and just plain fun into this revenge-and-betrayal story about Nicholai Hel vs. Arab terrorists, energy consortiums, and the CIA. And throughout the book, he is quite obviously telling America and American readers that they suck. He really wants you to enjoy this book, and to know that the sort of people who enjoy books like this are plodding, brainless, mediocre people. It's quite a unique experience to enjoy a book while being aware that the author is mocking you for enjoying it.
I suspect Whitaker/Trevanian took himself a wee bit too seriously, but not many authors can pull off the trick of being a literary elitist while writing bestselling airport paperbacks.
Q: Americans are reading lots of books, but at least anecdotally it appears they are reading blockbusters and that smaller, literary titles are being pushed to the margins. Do you see a similar trend in Europe, and what impact will this have?
A: Alas, yes, it’s coming to Europe as well and it’s a great pity. A lot of excellent new writers will never get read. This is hardest on the story-tellers of America, because writers of attractively-packaged fact and history are still doing fairly well, although even these readerships are dwindling, captured by the internet and by the electronic games that consume so much of the time of the kinds of kids who used to read history and science.
The shadow of ‘literary globalization’ is falling across all of western Europe, and will hit the English-writing countries first, as English is the language of commerce, and therefore it’s the foreign language of preference for the teeming populations whose five hundred word vocabularies limit them to language on a comic book level. Hence Barbara Cartland is still the most popular English language writer in India. And I’ve heard there is a similar dumbing-down impulse at home, where a series of children’s books by a very canny English writer is the most popular read on American campuses.
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Verdict: Shibumi is a very well-written needle-sharp satire. It's about an amoral go-playing Mighty Whitey superhero who's better at being Japanese than the Japanese, filled with heaping dollops of racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes, and written with the plot of a Clint Eastwood movie and the prose of someone who might have aspired to something better except he didn't think his audience deserved it. Highly recommended as a fun read, as a slightly deeper read if you care to parse the author's meta, and as an offensively dated read if you take it at face value.
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