Book Review : Trevanian - Shibumi (1979)

Order SHIBUMI here

Considering the heraldic stiffness of CIA mentality, it was inevitable that their version of wit would suggest a homosexual relationship between Diamond and his ever-hovering assistant. Most of the jokes had to do with what would happen to the assistant's nose, should Mr. Diamond ever stop suddenly.

Some things are so awesome, you figure they could only have been born from a drunken bet.

Inebriated Intellectual: I can't read this James Bond shit, y'know. Fuck this shit 'bout superpowers but not. What' zit? Marvel Comics or sumtin'?

Trevanian: I betcha...I betcha I can write a James Bond type of character you would fuckin' roll over for. I betcha, man.

Inebriated Intellectual: Oh yeah?

Trevanian: Oh yeah, it's gon' be a Russian-super-killer-philosopher-jibba-jabba-Japanese-sex-master

*Inebriated Intellectual passes out*

SHIBUMI was born (or almost). It's a hilarious spoof, a great literary novel with philosophical undertones and the world's most bizarre spy thriller. It's all that at the same time. More important, it's a complex, yet approachable cipher, built by the great mind of Rod Whitaker, also known as Trevanian. It's the most intellectually engaging novel I've read in a long, long time.

It's difficult to summarize what SHIBUMI is about, because thinking straightforwardly about this novel is to fool yourself. The chain of events goes more or less like this. An Israeli commando is looking for retribution for the Munich Olympics murders, but are massacred by a mysterious government agency in the process. Hannah Stern, the only survivor, seeks refuge with an old friend of her uncle, Nicholai Hel, who happens to be the world's best paid assassin and tenth level black belt in sex. Nothing less.

What makes SHIBUMI great is that those events are the main plot, but take the backseat to the amazing character development. SHIBUMI is about Nicholai Hel's intellectual and spiritual development into becoming the world's most dangerous man. If you keep that out of sight and keep longing for story developments, you will find SHIBUMI long and confusing because it has little regards for the genre it actually pretends it is. I know what you're thinking. How can such a cliché can power a 450 pages long novel and keep things interesting?

"I've always wanted to visit New York"

"You'd be disappointed. It's a frightened city in which everyone is in hot and narrow pursuit of money: the bankers, the muggers, the businessmen, the whores. If you walk the streets and watch their eyes, you see two things: fear and fury. They are diminished people hovering behind triple-locked doors. They fight with men they don't hate, and make love to women they don't like..." *

Here's there the drunken bet exploit comes into play. Trevanian starts with this cliché, unbelievable premise and with patience and craft, goes over every little detail that could make Hel both believable and easy to relate to. You will find that his gift wasn't physical in the first place (looking younger than his age played both for and again him) and that he developed his political indifference through a series of painful ordeals and a curious national identity issue (he has none). There is also the Japanese game of Go that's all over this novel. This quirk might require extra reading on your end, but the information is both easy to find and easy to understand. Go is a capital variable in appreciating SHIBUMI, especially in regards to the story structure. Jotting down what's in the structure section here might help you enjoy the novel better.

As Nicholai Hel is a spoof of conventional spy characters by nature, he is a rather serious character. Other aspects of SHIBUMI are wilder and more direct wit. His quips on the CIA and the Mother Company are both hilarious and of a frightening accuracy. SHIBUMI was written in 1979 and yet it discusses issues that are relevant today. The energy companies having control over the government and sponsoring armed conflict. Trevanian shows great vision in discussing these issues and yet never loses his sense of humor about it. It's another fascinating aspect of this deeply layered novel. Humor and political commentary are intertwined together.

SHIBUMI is the product of the elevated and enlightened mind of Trevanian. Unlike most literary writers who loves creating ciphers, his intentions were democratic. He wanted people to understand how he viewed existence. It requires effort and patience, but it's a novel that never locks you out. It's never carrying you along, but it never leaves you behind. I'm aware that my review is a little abstract, but there is no way to explain SHIBUMI better than to experience it. For the next few months, it will be the novel I shove down my friends' throats for their own good. Books like this are rare and deserve all the love and enthusiasm they can get. SHIBUMI is a forgotten treasure, a masterpiece. **


*That said, I kinda like New York myself, but I thought it represented the American zeitgeist quite well, even today.

** For those who wonder, Don Winslow wrote a prequel to SHIBUMI, year later. It's called SATORI.


I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.

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