The reading public back in 1979 picked this book up thinking they were reading a best selling thriller novel, little did they know they were going to be exposed to a Trevanian philosophy called SHIBUMI.“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 prudency. 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…authority without domination. One does not achieve SHIBUMI, one…discovers it. And only a few men of infinite refinement ever do that. One must pass through knowledge and arrive at simplicity to arrive at SHIBUMI.”
I've seen reviewers say that this book is too intelligently written to be published today. A bit cynical in my opinion, the book is a product of the time, but certainly doesn't come across as a typical written by-the-numbers thriller. Written today it would obviously be written differently. Probably some of the more defining aspects of the book would be lost, but I still think this book would make the spring list of a major publisher.
The first part is about Nicholai Hei's upbringing in Shanghai and Tokyo. He was born to an exiled Russian countess and a German soldier. His mother does whatever she needs to do to survive as territory changes hands and new armies march into town. Luckily for Hei his mom has the good fortune to snag a Japanese General, Kishikawa,who takes a shine to the boy. He arranges for Nicholai to be sent back to friends who can further his teachings in the Japanese philosophy game of GO. Nicholai has a natural ear for languages and learns five. As the world destabilizes and the Americans and the Russians start competing for trophies, Nicholai finds himself without a country. His one asset is his knowledge of languages. He takes a job working for the Americans even though he loathes them. The book is filled with pointed criticisms of all nationalities, but Trevanian's favorite target is the Americans. "It was not their irritating assumption of equality that annoyed Nicholai so much as their cultural confusions. The Americans seemed to confuse standard of living with quality of life, equal opportunity with institutionalized mediocrity, bravery with courage, machismo with manhood, liberty with freedom, wordiness with articulation, fun with pleasure – in short, all of the misconceptions common to those who assume that justice implies equality for all, rather than equality for equals."
Hei commits an act that brings him under the control of the CIA. The accusations that are thrown at him reminded me of 2008 when then Senator Obama was running for President and people were holding up signs with a Hitler mustache under his nose and accusing him of being a Stalinist. I kind of felt they needed to pick whether he was a Nazi or a Communist. It is really hard to be both. "If I understand you, Major-and frankly I don't much care if I do-you are accusing me of being both a communist and a Nazi, of being both a close friend of General Kishikawa's and his hired assassin of being both a Japanese militarist and a Soviet spy. None of this offends your sense of rational probability?"
Hei is subjected to devastating torture while in the hands of the Americans and this treatment sets him on his course of being an international assassin for hire and a level four master of sexual intercourse. Yes, in this novel there are four levels of sexual aptitude and I am not going to speculate as to where I fall on the spectrum.
The first part of the novel is really good, but I really liked the second part because we get to meet Hei's friends. We find Nicholai living in a chateau in the Basque region of France.
His best friend is Beñat Le Cagot a self made man, a Basque poet who has an ego larger than Donald Trump only expressed with much more intelligence. He is randy, fun loving, and a spelunking companion for Hei. He likes expressing himself with colorful language such as "By the Two Damp Balls of John the Baptist."
A typical conversation Hei always has to endure Le Cagotisms. "Is everything laid out?
"Does the devil hate the wafer?"
"Have you tested the Brunton compass?"
"Do babies shit yellow?
"And you're sure there's no iron in the rock?"
"Did Moses start forest fires?"
"And the fluorescein is packed up?"
"Is Franco an asshole?"
Hei takes this all in stride, but I found myself snorting out loud several times at the Le Cagot wit. Trevanian must have had a giggle or two coming up with some of the Le Cagot expressions.
Needless to say Hei becomes enmeshed with a situation counter to American interests. He enlists the aid of his other friend "The Gnome" a dwarf (Peter Dinklage?) and a world class blackmailer who has the means to bring governments to their knees. Body counts rise quickly, and in the course of his chess match with the Americans he realizes he has much more to lose than his life philosophy would ever have him admit. The book is at times over the top, spoofish, but the real brilliance of the book is the ability to read it on whatever level you want. If you want to take it to the beach as a mind diverting entertainment it will deliver. If you want to read it and let your mind toss around the aspects of the philosophy of Shibumi that is also quite easily done. Either approach to the book will garner enjoyment. Highly recommended and if I write much more I'm going to convince myself to bump it from four to five stars.
I want to leave you with a summary of Hei's view of American culture. "It's not Americans I find annoying; it's Americanism: a social disease of the postindustrial world that must inevitably infect each of the mercantile nations in turn, and is called 'American' only because your nation is the most advanced case of the malady, much as one speaks of Spanish flu, or Japanese Type-B encephalitis. It's symptoms are a loss of work ethic, a shrinking of inner resources, and a constant need for external stimulation, followed by spiritual decay and moral narcosis. You can recognize the victim by his constant efforts to get in touch with himself, to believe his spiritual feebleness is an interesting psychological warp, to construe his fleeing from responsibility as evidence that he and his life are uniquely open to new experiences. In the later stages, the sufferer is reduced to seeking that most trivial of human activities: fun."