Book Review – Shibumi by Trevanian

Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence.

ShibumiShibumi is a meta-spy novel originally published in 1979, written by an author known only as Trevanian (later identified as Rodney William Whitaker).

What exactly is a meta-spy novel? Think Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories, but with bucko literary flair and an anti-hero plot gone wild. Throughout Shibumi, Trevanian has poured glass after glass of sweet word nectar while simultaneously creating an enthralling and clever caricature. The man wrote sentences the way Pavarotti merely hummed a tune.

Sure, his take on spy novel tropes is absurd, and if taken too seriously, may cause offense. Shibumi often serves as a vehicle to rail against Western culture and modes of thought. I understand that this was written during a period where Eastern philosophy was en vogue (Kung Fu anyone?) and though the negative aspects of American/European life are often taken to the extreme, Trevanian never fails to entertain if you take a lighthearted view (especially if you find complete agreement).

The book is broken up into multiple sections, each representing a different maneuver or game-state in the Japanese game of Go, of which our latent protagonist, Nicholai Hel, is a master. He’s the essence of calculated coolness, the suave spy skilled in both quick thinking and espionage. Not only is he a man with the right connections, but having mastered the martial art of “Naked/Kill,” Hel can end a life with a simple paperclip. Lastly, being a man who seeks to maximize all potential, his sexual prowess goes beyond the basics, able to take himself and his partners to heights of post-physical ecstasy.

For Hel, everything culminates into the titled shibumi, a state of total understanding, awareness, and union with the surrounding environment. The first third of the book is an illustration of young Nicholai’s journey to metaphysical fitness.

But we’re talking about the old Hel. Our reluctant hero has been retired for awhile, enjoying an active life exploring caves and living in an old chateau in his adopted Basque countryside. Of course, there would be no story if a man of such skills were allowed peace and solitude: a favor owed to an old friend brings him back into the fold of international conspiracies and old grudges.

I hear the rest of Trevanian’s books hop genres, so it’s difficult to say if any one is an indication of the quality of another, plot-wise. If you like the writing, it’s likely the rest of the books are just as wonderful. As a writer and a student, one could hardly do better than to grab at least one of his other novels. In the meantime, Shibumi should provide enough entertainment and poetic nutrition to keep you satisfied.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review – Shibumi by Trevanian

  1. Definitely sounds like a unique book. And with an anti-hero plot, maybe even a little before its time.

    1. Great way to put it. I’ve honestly never read anything quite like it.

  2. Great review, Phillip! You got me interested 🙂

    1. It shows its age a little bit, but the writing is still vivid.

  3. I absolutely loved the book and will read it again in the future. It kept me turning pages but it exercised my brain because of some of the philosophical things being discussed.

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