Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Satori, by Don Winslow

A prequel to Shibumi, starring Nicholai Hel before he became the quintessential Gary Stu.


Grand Central Publishing, 2011, 504 pages

Nicholai Hel--genius, mystic, and the perfect, formidable assassin--was first introduced to readers in Shibumi, the classic #1 bestseller by master storyteller Trevanian. Now, critically-acclaimed author Don Winslow continues Hel's story for the first time in this all-new, blockbuster thriller.

It is the fall of 1951 and the Korean War is raging. Twenty-six year-old Nicholai Hel has spent the last three years in solitary confinement at the hands of the Americans. Hel is a master of hoda korosu or "naked kill," fluent in seven languages, and has honed extraordinary "proximity sense" - an extra awareness of the presence of danger. He has the skills to be the world's most fearsome assassin and now the CIA needs him. The Americans offer Hel freedom, money, and a neutral passport in exchange for one small service: go to Beijing and kill the Soviet Union's Commissioner to China. It's almost certainly a suicide mission, but Hel accepts. Now he must survive chaos, violence, suspicion, and betrayal while trying to achieve his ultimate goal of satori - the possibility of true understanding and harmony with the world.

In the 1970s, an author named Rodney William Whitaker wrote best-selling airport paperbacks under the pen name "Trevanian." His most famous novel was Shibumi, a thriller about a Japanese-raised son of Russian aristocrats named Nicholai Hel. The story was just a typical Men's Adventure tale about an over-the-top action hero who was more Japanese than the Japanese, more Basque than the Basque, and more badass than a barrelful of GI Joes. It was full of lurid sex and violence and enough racist, sexist cliches to give modern SJWs seizures.

What made it a truly great novel, though, was the fact that "Trevanian" was taking the piss out of his audience, which was evident to anyone who could read the subtext of all the characters' speeches. Nicholai Hel was a ridiculous parody of every Mighty Whitey superhero from Tarzan to James Bond, and he said right on the page that Americans were tasteless, cultureless, soulless boors who assuaged their lack of intellect or character by reading crappy novels about Mighty Whitey superheroes. One got the impression that Trevanian was fairly seething with hatred for the very readers who made him a bestseller.

Taken at face value, Shibumi was still a fun novel, and Trevanian was a much better writer than Ian Fleming. But I think it was much easier to appreciate as a work of meta-textual satire. Or to put it another way, Trevanian was a literary troll.

So along comes a modern writer of violent thrillers, Don Winslow, whose agent got him a deal to write an authorized sequel to Shibumi. Winslow renders faithfully the character introduced to us in Trevanian's novel, and in Nicholai Hel's adventures in Paris, China, and Vietnam, gives us the same lethal, go-obsessed killer who was so entertaining in the previous novel. But Satori depicts a younger Hel, immediately after World War II, not quite as accomplished (no "Level Five Lovemaking") or deadly or imperturbable, not yet a master of espionage, and most importantly, not a scornful philosopher issuing pithy denunciations of modern society.

Inasmuch as Winslow has tried to present a follow-up to the adventures of Nicholai Hel, he's written a novel that is compatible with Shibumi and fills us in on Hel's earlier life. He admits in his author's notes that he could not, and did not try, to emulate Trevanian's voice. But he's thereby abandoned much of what made Trevanian's novel great, rendering a fairly standard adventure novel that Trevanian and his character mouthpieces would denounce as hack fiction.

In Satori, Nicholai Hel has been captured by Americans after the occupation of Japan. Originally hired as a translator, Hel killed his mentor, a Japanese general, to spare him the humiliation of a war crimes trial and execution. The Americans don't react well to this, and Hel gets some special treatment from a sadistic CIA officer. Then for contrived reasons, they decide they need Hel to do a job for him, and make a deal to offer him his freedom and a new life if he'll just go kill the Russian ambassador to Communist China in Peking for them.

How this is set up - the whys and wherefores - make sense, more or less, in the novel, but it's all just background to send Hel on a trip to China, dodging Maoist secret police and trying to assassinate a Soviet bureaucrat who turns out to have some history with Hel's mother. So there's lots of espionage and torture and martial arts, and then Hel has to escape China, and winds up in Vietnam doing arms deals as a fake French arms merchant while the French, the Americans, and various factions of the Vietnamese are all out to get him. Along the way he also falls in love with a French prostitute, and while it may technically be a spoiler, I'm sure everyone else who reads this will have exactly the same reaction I did when she was introduced, which was the absolute certainty that she would not survive to the end of the book.

I would highly recommend you read Shibumi first. Then, if you like that book, you will probably appreciate Satori, but just don't expect the same kind of book.

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Tags: #1, books, reviews

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