Alternative spy thriller genre: Shibumi by Trevanian


Summary from the writer Trevanian’s own site:

Nicolai Hel was born in the turbulent China of the First World War, of an aristocratic mother and a mysterious German father, and educated in the spiritual gardens of a Japanese Go master. Surviving the destruction of Hiroshima he appears as the world’s most consumate and artistic lover – though better paid as an assassin. Genius, mystic, master of cultures and languages, Hel’s secret is his determination to reach that rare personal purity and state of perfection known as Shibumi. Living in an isolated mountain stronghold with a beautiful Asian companion, he meets his most sinister enemy, a vast monolithic spy organisation. The battle lines are drawn: merciless power and corruption on one side, and on the other…

Originally published in 1979, Shibumi has made the greatest impact among Trevanian fans and remains today his most revered novel.

And, commenting on this novel which became a cult classic and launched an entire genre of the Oriental-Mystic alternative spy thriller, the writer said:

In his own words

Trevanian, (answering written questions from Judy Quinn of Publisher’s Weekly, in 1998) said about it.

I was still obliged to give my publisher another book. Another “Trevanian” book. I swallowed this bitter pill and decided I would indeed write another book within the super-spy genre, but although it would be published under the name Trevanian, it would be written by an altogether different persona. Like The Main before it, and like the books that were to follow, this would be a real novel hidden within a popular genre.

I dug back into my youth in Japan and worked up a writer for Shibumi, a book just barely within the conventions of the slam-bang super-spy, but one that offered the reader a virile style of excellence that had nothing to do with force, braggadocio, or violence. It blended a good yarn with a life-philosophy, and was an instant international success. After this book — a bestseller all around the world, even in such languages as Finnish, Hebrew, Turkish and Polish — I had abandoned the super-spy genre. After the definitive exercise of the genre that was Shibumi, there was no point in me writing further in this genre … or anyone else, for that matter.

In other words, by abandoning the genre just after writing one story which became a trendsetting bestseller, Trevanian had exercised the very essence of Shibumi he was writing about.

From Wiki’s entry on the novel:


Shibumi is, broadly, a parody of the spy novel genre, but Trevanian also incorporated pieces of philosophy and highly-specific cultural observations in the work, most obviously with his portrayals of American (and, more generally, western) culture after World War II. Trevanian himself echoed his hero Hel’s dislike of western materialism in the few interviews he gave to the press.
The book contains 6 chapters of unequal length, each of them bearing the name of a go game figure:

1. Fuseki : The opening stage of a game when the entire board is taken into account.
2. Sabaki : An attempt to dispose of a troublesome situation in a quick and flexible way.
3. Seki : A neutral situation in which neither side has the advantage. A “Mexican stand-off.”
4. Uttegae : A sacrifice play, a gambit.
5. Shicho : A running attack.
6. Tsuru no Sugomori : “The confinement of the cranes to their nest,” a graceful maneuver in which the enemy stones are captured.

Trevanian’s (Whitaker’s) character Hel was supposed, in the novel, to have written an analysis of Go which was in fact a spoof of the game. In the book-within-a-book, the commentator’s attempts to attach spurious significance of life and philosophy to what were, in fact, clumsy and amateurish maneuvers was a part of the spoof. The use of subtly mis-stated Go figures to rationalize the structure of a novel that was in itself a spoof of the incompetence of people who believe they run the world is an indisposable pillar of the satire.

And while I definitely picked up this book as a high-adventure minded boy for its obvious appeal in genre and rather intriguing alternative oriental theme (Nicholas Hel is no James Bond or Dirk Pitt!), what really drew me was that the book opens with a scene set in a Japanese-occupied Singapore in the 1940s.

Although Trevanian was rather off the mark with some of the descriptions of the game of go or weiqi and its associations, as well as of martial traditions and practice, his expression of meditation and its potential to bring about heightened senses/awareness, especially for a pugilist/practitioner, was startlingly penetrating.

A book I thoroughly enjoyed as a boy, despite its annoying (double-reversed) cultural bigotry and historical inaccuracies.

Glad that Trevanian wisely terminated the franchise at just one book.

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