Thursday, July 2, 2009


I'm reading: ShibumiTweet this!
I read Shibumi on the recommendation of a friend of mine because of how over the top it is. Behold the ultimate assassin; Nicholai Hel. Born of a Russian artistocratic mother, perhaps the Lady with the Little White Dog, on a respite in Shanghai, and a German officer. The boy befriends a Japanese General after the takeover of the city, and learns the game of Go from him. He is a natural prodigy in many ways, and like many Westerners do when faced with the enigmatic society of Japan, believes that it is the most superior on Earth and embraces it fully. After World War 2 smashes through, Hel's good friend the General is captured as a war criminal by the Russians; both are used as pawns by the Americans, and he decides to learn the art of killing with ordinary objects, like a folded sheet of paper.
Because the Japanese have mastered those secrets, as well as something called Stage Four Lovemaking, where you can induce orgasm through eye contact. Now, I'm poking fun at a book I truly enjoyed; Hel becomes a master assassin, an idealist who strikes at the hulking behemoths of governmental and corporate power, represented by The Mother Company. An oil conglomerate, so it doesn't feel dated today. Hel has retired and lives in the Basque mountains in a fortress with a Zen Garden and a trained concubine, one of the few women who can match his near-deadly lovemaking skills. His good friend the Basque separatist BeƱat Le Cagot, a fellow cutting edge spelunker, joins him on caving expeditions in the misty mountains. And all is well.

Until the CIA screws up a hit on an Israeli counter-terrorist cel, essentially the homebrew version of the folks in Munich, who want to avenge the Olympic massacre. One girl has survived, and the Mother Company is not happy. Her uncle sends her to Nicholai, and now the world's greatest assassin is pitted against the world's most fearsome shadowy organization. I expected this to be a crazy espionage story like the Jason Bourne movies, but instead, much of its time is spent in backstory and character, and it's where Trevanian excels. The book is gripping, and full of humor. We may have a hero who has "proximity sense," so he can practically read minds and pinpoint the presence of enemies in the dark, but we can buy that. Because Trevanian is a great storyteller, who'll pause to poke fun at Clint Eastwood movies, making clear his dissatisfaction with the movie adaptation of The Eiger Sanction.
Shibumi could probably never be properly filmed without destroying most of the story. It's still an incredibly enjoyable read, and if you like James Bond, Bourne, and perhaps want to wear a kimono and wear Hai Karate cologne while making fondue in your Tiki room, it's the kind of book that channels the '70s zeitgeist and yet transcends it, so today it is still pure entertainment and not a self-parody. If A Confederacy of Dunces makes an epic hero out of a fat nerd living with his mother, then Shibumi takes the Cold War cynical spy hero and makes him into a Renaissance Man and plays with our desire to believe that with enough training and purity of spirit, maybe we can be as lucky and canny as James Bond. It's a fireside tall tale that you won't be able to put down, even when you chuckle at how far it dares to go.


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