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Shibumi


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#1 Stephenson

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Posted 08 August 2005 - 04:23 PM

One of my favorite spy novels is Shibumi by Trevanian. Although I'm not always crazy about having my favorite stories "reinterpreted" for the screen (Sahara is an example), this is one book I think would make an excellent film. Does anyone have any thoughts on casting for the key roles?

I realize, given Rodney Whitaker's relationship with Hollywood after the Eiger Sanction, that a movie is very unlikely to happen, but one can dream of it being done right with the author's approval.

#2 Loomis

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Posted 08 August 2005 - 04:31 PM

I love this book, although I've only read it once, some years ago, and don't own a copy. I remember discussing it with a friend, and we agreed that it was one of the great unfilmed novels, but that it'd be very difficult to make a faithful screen version, because of its length and because of things that would be tricky to make work on film - for instance, there's (if memory serves) an episode in a cave that goes on for a long time in almost total darkness. But, hey, I guess 99.9% of novels require major alterations for film adaptations.

One idea I had that I thought was quite cool (on reflection, it may be a bit gimmicky, or just plain daft) was to have a different "star" director shoot each of the hero's earlier missions, which are recalled in flashback: a five-minute Tarantino sequence, a five-minute Luc Besson sequence, a five-minute John Woo sequence, and so on, all these "mini-movies" dotted about the film, which would of course have a "main" director in overall control.

#3 Tarl_Cabot

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Posted 08 August 2005 - 04:49 PM

It's gloriously corny: " Master of art and culture, the world's most artful lover and deadliest assassin". :)

So I hope it doesn't turn out like that Remo Williams film...but then again, it would work beautifully as a spoof(some critics think it was a satire...I'm sure Spynovelfan will Clarify :) ).

Anyway, I say, why not? Let's do it....Eric Bana?

I liked Sahara, btw! :) :)

#4 Trident

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Posted 08 August 2005 - 04:57 PM

As the novel covers a very long timespan, Nicholai Hel would surely have to be cast with two different actors. One would have to be a person who was a bit older and yet convincingly fit, atractive and maybe a bit exotic looking. Please don't bash me, but I just thaught of Mark Harmon.

Darryl Starr I picture as an aging redneck version of a CIA agent. Perhaps David Morse?

Diamond would have to be somebody who is used to dressing impeccable. For some strange reason David Caruso comes to my mind.

Le Cagot I see as a powerful personality, boasting with laughter and joy of life. At first I thaught, Jean Reno could do the part. But he is more of the dark and brooding type. Maybe someone like Robert DeNiro would fit the part better?

Hana has to be an extremely beautyful eurasian woman. Sorry, I can't come up with a name for that part.

Hannah should be played by some young actress who can pull off the naive part convincingly. Sorry again, no name comes to my mind right now.


Of course, it would never be filmed faithfully. Probably the whole first section would only be told in brief flashbacks.

#5 Trident

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Posted 08 August 2005 - 05:00 PM

One idea I had that I thought was quite cool (on reflection, it may be a bit gimmicky, or just plain daft) was to have a different "star" director shoot each of the hero's earlier missions, which are recalled in flashback: a five-minute Tarantino sequence, a five-minute Luc Besson sequence, a five-minute John Woo sequence, and so on, all these "mini-movies" dotted about the film, which would of course have a "main" director in overall control.

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I think that's a fantastic idea! Would be real fun to see these missions.

#6 Tarl_Cabot

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Posted 08 August 2005 - 05:44 PM

One of my favorite spy novels is Shibumi by Trevanian. Although I'm not always crazy about having my favorite stories "reinterpreted" for the screen (Sahara is an example), this is one book I think would make an excellent film. Does anyone have any thoughts on casting for the key roles?

I realize, given Rodney Whitaker's relationship with Hollywood after the Eiger Sanction, that a movie is very unlikely to happen, but one can dream of it being done right with the author's approval.

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What was wrong with 'The Eiger Sanction'? :)

#7 Stephenson

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Posted 08 August 2005 - 06:48 PM

I just saw Sahara this weekend (it sometimes takes a while here in Guate :) ) and although I thoroughly enjoyed the movie for the two hours I was in the theatre, it didn't stick with me the way I was hoping a Dirk Pitt movie would. In otherwords, it wasn't as good as the material deserved, and I really don't feel a need to see another "Dirk Pitt Adventure" on the big screen if this is how their going to do it.

As for "The Eiger Sanction", again, I really enjoyed the movie, especially the climbing sequences, which were incredibly realistic. But Trevanian bashed it, calling it a "vapid film adaptation". It didn't help that two mountaineers died on the production. In the end, I get the distinct impression that working with Hollywood again is not high on his list of things to do (much like Cussler).

I really like the idea of using different directors to film different episodes of his life. In a way, it reminds me of the story telling approach used in "Spy Games", where different periods are filmed differently but linked together by a story told in the present.

I always thought that Terence Stamp would make an excellent older Hel (although he may be getting on now).

#8 Trident

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Posted 08 August 2005 - 07:04 PM

I always thought that Terence Stamp would make an excellent older Hel (although he may be getting on now).

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Terence Stamp would have made a magnificient Hel, had the film been made, say ten years ago.
http://www.celebrity...e-stamp-004.jpg
Today he is maybe just a little bit too old for the role. But he still is a fine actor and would surely put his own "stamp" on the film. :)

#9 spynovelfan

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Posted 08 August 2005 - 07:37 PM

Hel: Aaron Eckhart
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Le Cagot: Michael Lonsdale
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As far as I got. There are numerous problems with the novel, I think, though I like it a lot. But it does rather love itself. :) If you've read any Joe Gall adventures from the 60s, it's also quite familiar. As for filming it, just reading the book makes it obvious that the man who wrote it would never allow this to be made into a Hollywood film. But just say it were, for fun. :) It would be a lot that would have to be changed, although I imagine Hel's views on his own country would work. But the terrorist attacks in the airport and in fact the whole Israel thing would have to be totally changed (again, Trevanian would never agree to it). But perhaps the biggest problem is that it would be seen as an imitator of the Bourne series, even though I'm pretty sure the writeror director of SUPREMACY must have read Trevanian. Remember all the Naked/Kill stuff? And in THE LOO SANCTION, he fights someone with a rolled-up copy of Punch. Anyway, there have been very many films that have incorporated stuff from this book: RONIN, for the samurai warrior mercenary agent; the Bourne films, for an agent who uses his brain and household objects to fight; SPARTAN, hell, even DIE ANOTHER DAY a little - though it would have been very cool if Bond had learned to shut down his whole body in prison. :)

For fans of this novel, I recommend:

COCKPIT by Jerzy Kosinski. Even has that shutting down the body bit. Much darker and scarier work, though, about an eastern European former agent and the games he plays.

THE PEKING TARGET by Adam Hall. Thriller following British agent Quiller in Seoul. An expert in shotokan karate, an expert in sleep therapy, able to shut his brain down, a lover of the Orient, a man who will do anything to survive.

THE DEATH BIRD CONTRACT by Philip Atlee. Joe Gall lives in an elaborate house of his own design somewhere in the Catskills, I believe. To fund it, he occasionally carries out dangerous missions for the CIA, whom he loathes. In this novel, the government wants to appoint a prominent businessman as an ambassador somewhere - but they're worried about rumours that he has a heroin habit. Gall infilitrates the man's circle by getting himself hooked on the drug. Very scary, taut, well-written thriller.

#10 Stephenson

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Posted 08 August 2005 - 08:39 PM

Thanks for the recommendations!

I always thought the joke in Shibumi was that it was meant to appear as though it loved itself. Hence the author's self-references in the footnotes (the extended one about the author's reasons for not discussing Naked/Kill in detail I found particularly amusing).

It is somewhat ironic that a novel written 25 odd years ago is too topical today to avoid controversy. I'm not sure if this says more about Trevanian's insight into world politics or the fact that, "the more things change ...." IMO, I think that if it was treated as a serious character study with overtones of social commentary (an idea which Trevanian would laugh at!), it would make a very interesting movie. What they are doing with "The Constant Gardener" or the way they handled the Smiley novels springs to mind.

As for cast, for my first shot I would say:

Hel: Raph Fiennes
Le Cagot: John Rhys-Davis or Depardieu
Diamond: Henry Czerny
Daryll Starr: Joe Don Baker
Hana: Kelly Hu
Hannah: Anne Hathaway? After seeing "Saved", I actually think Mandy Moore might be able to pull it of.

Of course, if Hollywood ever got its hands on it, Shibumi would end up being a Tom Cruise vehicle :)

#11 Loomis

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Posted 08 August 2005 - 09:21 PM

For fans of this novel, I recommend:

COCKPIT by Jerzy Kosinski. Even has that shutting down the body bit. Much darker and scarier work, though, about an eastern European former agent and the games he plays.

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Good book, that. And, yes, very dark.

#12 spynovelfan

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Posted 10 August 2005 - 01:17 PM

I always thought the joke in Shibumi was that it was meant to appear as though it loved itself. Hence the author's self-references in the footnotes (the extended one about the author's reasons for not discussing Naked/Kill in detail I found particularly amusing).

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Maybe. But I still find it pretty draining after a while. I just got the impression that the writer thought he was so much cleverer than me, and that if anyone had pointed out a flaw in his book he would have not listened because they were clearly an imbecile. That's original and effective to a point, but the book does have flaws. I found most of the caving stuff very dull indeed. It's not *necessarily* because I'm a CIA shill, though - it might just be that the writing wasn't quite as thrilling as Trevanian clearly thought we'd all find it was. I can't put my finger on it any more than that, really - there just seems something too mean-spirited that I don't like. Hemlock is pretty arrogant, too, but somehow the two Sanction books seem much more pleasant. I think THE LOO SANCTION's a much better read than SHIBUMI, though it has dated a lot more. Tarden, the protagonist of Kosinki's COCKPIT, is a lot nastier than Hel: he's a murderer, a rapist, a sociopath. But he somehow has more of a connection to humanity than Hel, and I do kind of value that. Hel has no weaknesses whatsoever, and I think that's a weakness with the novel.

#13 superado

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Posted 10 August 2005 - 01:33 PM

I've always wanted to validate something with others who've read the book. Am I correct to interpret that all the secret service "passengers" in the Concorde were eventually killed to make sure there won't be any leaks about the incident on the plane?

#14 spynovelfan

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Posted 10 August 2005 - 01:41 PM

Can't remember, sorry. Though it sounds very much in keeping with the tone of the novel.

Other obvious similarities it has with the Bourne films: the CIA is a corrupt and evil machine, and we follow the adventures of the world's greatest assassin, who is an American. Very interesting fact, though: SHIBUMI was first published in 1979, the year *before* Ludlum published THE BOURNE IDENTITY. I'd always presumed SHIBUMI was a comment on BOURNE. Apparently not.

#15 Bon-san

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Posted 10 August 2005 - 05:05 PM

I've always loved Shibumi.

Yeah, Trevanian (nee Whitaker) sounds like the kind of chap I wouldn't want to disagree with at a cocktail party, for fear of having to bear the brunt of his considerable "intellectual ire" for the rest of the evening.

But as far as the book goes, I found it an exceedingly enjoyable lark, wealthy with interesting and well-fleshed-out characters, and punctuated by an embedded sarcasm that is either arrogant in the extreme or poking fun at itself (I care not which, the book gave me considerable pleasure--the bargain is struck).

As for Hel, he is indeed too perfect. Much like Our Man Bond. In many ways, in fact, Hel is the anti-Bond. Tons of detailed backstory, a deep spirtitual devotion, completely un-patriotic. And he has hobbies.

Back to Trevanian, I love the Sanction books as well. Just great stuff. I've been meaning to read some of his later works, but have never got around to it. Anyone else read "Summer of Katya","The Main" or his others?

#16 Stephenson

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Posted 10 August 2005 - 10:45 PM

I agree to a point spynovelfan: Trevanian does kind of hit the point home with a sledgehammer at times. Kind of, "I, the great author, know this is all a satire, and I want you to know it as well, and since I am operating under the assumption that the general reader of spy novels is an imbecil, I'm going to go really over the top to make sure you can't miss it!" Still, like Bon-san, I found it extremely entertaining. I actually found one of the best reviews of Shibumi on Amazon:

"Reviewer: A. Towns (Atlanta, Ga.) - See all my reviews

One of the best book I ever read. Must be read more than once to fully appreciate the commentary and nuances. The best review was written by the highly secretive Trevanian, himself, at page 105 (hardback):

"The book was an elaborate joke in the form of a report and commentary on a fictional master's game played at the turn of the century. While the play of the "masters" seemed classic and even brilliant to the average player, there were little blunders and irrelevant placements that brought frowns to the more experienced of the readers... The book was, in fact, a subtle and eloquent parody of the intellectual parasitism of the critic, and much of the delight lay in the knowledge that both the errors of play and the articulate nonsense of the commentary were so arcane that most readers would nod along in grave agreement."

I.E. It just a book."

Kind of sums it up for me! I always believed that Hel's weakness is his arrogance, his assumption that he can actually attain a state of spiritual perfection. That egotism is what constantly defeats him on his quest.

As for superado's question, yes (or at least I believe) the agents on the concorde were eliminated by their government. Kind of goes with the whole "corrupt and immoral government" theme.

As for Summer of Katya, I hated it. Not because it wasn't in the same genre as the Sanction books or Shibumi, but because it was such a juvenile attempt at Edwardian romance. You'd probably read better stuff in a first year composition class. Really, a huge letdown. I still want to read "The Main".

Any other thoughts on actors or actresses?

#17 Loomis

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Posted 11 August 2005 - 05:21 PM

Other obvious similarities it has with the Bourne films: the CIA is a corrupt and evil machine, and we follow the adventures of the world's greatest assassin, who is an American. Very interesting fact, though: SHIBUMI was first published in 1979, the year *before* Ludlum published THE BOURNE IDENTITY. I'd always presumed SHIBUMI was a comment on BOURNE. Apparently not.

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From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trevanian:

"It was often rumored that (Trevanian) was actually Robert Ludlum using a pen name to which Trevanian stated, "I don't even know who he is. I read Proust, but not much else written in the 20th century."

#18 spynovelfan

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Posted 11 August 2005 - 06:46 PM

I suppose that rumour would come from his having written two spy thrillers with Ludlum-like titles: Ludlum pretty much invented that THE XXXX XXXX thing. And then Shibumi, the size of which and packaging made it very reminiscent of Ludlum:

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Ludlum had also written a thriller in 1973 called TREVAYNE. But anyone thinking Trevanian was Ludlum hasn't read both authors. Ludlum writes very exciting thrillers with lots of twists and turns, but his prose was appallingly bad.

#19 trevanian

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Posted 12 August 2005 - 12:52 PM

Except for the book of short stories, which I can't seem to get into, I have liked all of Trevanian's ouput, with my faves being THE MAIN, SHIBUMI and SUMMER OF KATYA (which I actually looked into the option rights on back in 1990 or so ... right now, the girl from PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN would be just about perfect for Katya, and somebody smart enough to have the film rights should approach her.) The western novel was interesting, but not rereadable for me, while the Hemlock novels are fun without being super-memorable. Trevanian takes up more of my now-limited bookshelf space than any other writer except for Harlan Ellison (who is probably quicker on the barbed-comment draw than Whitaker, which really means something.)

Around 1980, there was talk of Connery as Hel, which didn't ring right to me; this was after the time when Connery was also talked up for the lead in SHOGUN, which I found funny, since SHOGUN's supporting player, John Rhys-Davis, would have been a great definitive Le Cagot!

As long as we have espionage readers here, has anybody read Stan Lee (no relation to the comic guy), who did DUNN'S CONNUNDRUM and one other title I have misplaced?

#20 Trident

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Posted 13 August 2005 - 06:13 PM

As long as we have espionage readers here, has anybody read Stan Lee (no relation to the comic guy), who did DUNN'S CONNUNDRUM and one other title I have misplaced?

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I've only read "Dunn's Conundrum" once, about 16 years ago(Really? THAT LONG ago?!?). I found it very entertaining and funny, although maybe a bit over the top at times. It's clearly a parody, but not the kind that purposefully turns a genre into a travesty. To the contrary, the book is an intelligent thriller with a lot of action. In the bargain it is a sarcastic look at the SDI project and the "winnable war" the military dreamed of in those years. It's set very much in the Reagan-years, when Russia was the "evil empire", but adopts an ultra-advanced surveillance-technology that would seem sci-fi even nowadays. I liked the idea of the "library"-secret service, where everyone knows everything and the department that consists of doubles of the kremlin heads of state to keep track of their possible decisions. Or the department that investigates the trash of possible suspects. I even liked that the hero was more of a desk jockey than a field agent and yet didn't do too bad. A good read really.

#21 MkB

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Posted 06 May 2011 - 07:26 PM

When I picture a young Nicholai Hel, I see Simon Woods, who played Octavian in the 2nd season of the Rome miniseries.

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#22 Dustin

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Posted 06 May 2011 - 07:51 PM

Most remarkable looks. Piercing eyes. I have to say when reading Shibumi several years ago I pictured someone roughly like him.

#23 Loomis

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Posted 06 May 2011 - 09:26 PM

Most remarkable looks. Piercing eyes. I have to say when reading Shibumi several years ago I pictured someone roughly like him.


I'm re-reading SHIBUMI at the moment, and am also picturing someone who looks a lot like this Simon Woods fella.

Woods also looks (in these photos, at least) like he could play a young Daniel Craig. Maybe Craig could play the older Hel.

I'm a couple of chapters into SHIBUMI. Read it a few years ago and remember enjoying it, although I've forgotten an awful lot about it. It's remarkable - indeed, almost shocking - how topical it seems. Trevanian paints a hellish backdrop of trouble in the Middle East, terrorism, over-powerful corporations that practically control allegedly democratic societies, attempts at grabbing nations' oil, and so on. One of the villains even talks in good ole boy stock phrases delivered in a thick Texan drawl, and even the internet is foreshadowed, with a CIA supercomputer dubbed Fat Boy that contains a mine of exhaustive information on everyone on the planet. SHIBUMI certainly doesn't read like a museum piece from 1979 - in fact, it's a rather chilling book to pick up in the week of Osama Bin Laden's death.

That said, the satire and black humour do strike me as overly "on-the-nose" in places, and the prose style is perhaps just a wee bit too dry for my taste. Still, SHIBUMI is shaping up nicely, and I shall certainly pick up Don Winslow's just-published prequel, SATORI, when it appears in paperback.

#24 Dustin

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Posted 06 May 2011 - 10:10 PM

I find that mother company computer system particularly prophetic. When browsing for example Wikipedia with my iPhone I find that same layered structure of giving information in increasing degrees of detail (and in fact on most websites if I look just closely enough). Quite eery how Trevanian has, probably unwittingly, been spot on with his vision.

The unsubtle approach of breaking the genre's conventions by an overkill of irony I think was due to the time of the early 1980s. A lot of the genre works had already lost momentum and steam and had to make up by adopting a pose of ironic distance. Trevanian, out for the uberthriller, naturally put on his shade of sarcasm twice as thick. Browsing through some pages I doubt the book would have been published as is today again, and not for the obvious political implications.

Re Winslow: Having read some favourable reviews of his previous works (he's in the game for close to twenty years it would seem) I decided to first pick up a few of his original works before starting Satori. He strikes me as an accomplished and experienced writer with a very distinctive voice of his own. I wouldn't want to cloud my judgement of his work by my own inability to get over my fondness for Shibumi and Trevanian.

#25 Loomis

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Posted 07 May 2011 - 01:48 AM

The unsubtle approach of breaking the genre's conventions by an overkill of irony I think was due to the time of the early 1980s. A lot of the genre works had already lost momentum and steam and had to make up by adopting a pose of ironic distance. Trevanian, out for the uberthriller, naturally put on his shade of sarcasm twice as thick. Browsing through some pages I doubt the book would have been published as is today again, and not for the obvious political implications.


In his intro to SHIBUMI, Winslow also points out that "Trevanian writes what he wants to write about - the Basque country, spelunking and the like (I can only imagine the spirited debate with the editor). ... SHIBUMI is a dazzlingly courageous book in terms of its structure, taking the risk of spending as much time on its character's back story as it does in 'real time'."

Dustin, which other espionage novels are you particularly fond of?

#26 MkB

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Posted 07 May 2011 - 02:47 AM


Most remarkable looks. Piercing eyes. I have to say when reading Shibumi several years ago I pictured someone roughly like him.


I'm re-reading SHIBUMI at the moment, and am also picturing someone who looks a lot like this Simon Woods fella.

Woods also looks (in these photos, at least) like he could play a young Daniel Craig. Maybe Craig could play the older Hel.


I can only recommend you to watch Rome - a very good miniseries. Simon Woods appears only in season 2, in the 1st season the teenage Octavian is played by another younger actor. His character is very Hel-like, in this series - the same steely coldness and distance, and somehow loftiness.
Oddly enough, maybe Kevin McKidd, from this same series Rome, could be an older Nicholai Hel, although he might be a bit too bulky for the role, and his facial features are more marked than my mental image of Hel:

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#27 MkB

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Posted 07 May 2011 - 02:59 AM

About Trevanian's work in general: after enjoying Shibumi enormously, I've recently decided to read all his novels, and I'm almost done (I'm reading The Main at the moment, and I'm still to read The Summer of Katya - and the short stories)

Have you noticed how some elements are repeated in several of his works?
There are little touches: some phrases are repeated ("like a one-legged man in an [censored]-kicking contest", for instance), some ideas (murder is nothing more than a particular type of theft, the theft of a man's life), and names (there's a grocer named Kane in 2 of his novels at least, 2 of his characters -unrelated, in 2 separate novels- are named LaPointe). And most notably, his hero is paired in several novels with a hard-swearing older fellow named Ben (or BeƱat).

I recommend The Crazyladies of Pearl Street, which is somehow Whitaker's biography, and sheds some light on his personality (maybe!), and his love of "story games".

#28 Dustin

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Posted 07 May 2011 - 12:14 PM


The unsubtle approach of breaking the genre's conventions by an overkill of irony I think was due to the time of the early 1980s. A lot of the genre works had already lost momentum and steam and had to make up by adopting a pose of ironic distance. Trevanian, out for the uberthriller, naturally put on his shade of sarcasm twice as thick. Browsing through some pages I doubt the book would have been published as is today again, and not for the obvious political implications.


In his intro to SHIBUMI, Winslow also points out that "Trevanian writes what he wants to write about - the Basque country, spelunking and the like (I can only imagine the spirited debate with the editor). ... SHIBUMI is a dazzlingly courageous book in terms of its structure, taking the risk of spending as much time on its character's back story as it does in 'real time'."


Those other themes, the admiration of craftsmanship and the revulsion of the traders and merchants who exploit that craftsmanship, Hel's aspiration for a simple, Zen-like balance of all elements in his life, the Basque cause and its various connections to the terror of these decades, all that is truly baffling in a novel by an American, written firstly for the American market and having to prove itself right there. Who has ever heard of Euskara? Who occupies oneself with spelunking? Which of the Volvo owners would really kick their car? And who outside the relatively small group of afficionados ever set out to learn a game called Go? Most of the memorable detail Shibumi is regarded so highly for is really characterisation and serves to flesh out Hel. Hardly anything of it serves to get the plot going or moving; that practically happens without Hel's doing. And the plot, if stripped down to the actual activities of the protagonists, is relatively simple and spreads only over a few days of actual time in the present. Even the action, if we discount the various mentions in reports and third-party recollections from Hel's past, is relatively sparse for a thriller of 400 plus pages. And we only get to see Hel in action I think somewhere close to the halfway line for the first time.

Given all that it's really surprising to me that the book was published in this very form, its highly topical and most un-PC politics and Hel's utter contempt for our society aside. Shibumi is, apart from its genre-spoof, to some extent the work of an extremely erudite and refined writer who is essentially writing about his very own interests and views. In a genre work of espionage and suspense such has become sparse.


Dustin, which other espionage novels are you particularly fond of?


Not sure if I can come up with new suggestions, most seem to have already been mentioned here. I fondly remember Dunn's Conundrum from when I first read it, but haven't revisited it since. Cockpit I didn't like so much, probably because the episodic structure to me seemed too fragmented, I couldn't care enough for Tarden and his strange pastime.

Really fond I am of Stephen Fry's The Star's Tennis Balls. It is concerning espionage only as a fringe element that sets the drama of its protagonist in motion, but the whole book circles around it somewhat and so I guess it's fine to put it into the "espionage-related" drawer (IMO it's more of a thriller than Fry's The Liar, which is often reduced to the superficial spy theme). Fry is a splendid narrator and he makes you laugh out loud and cry in this one. It's a deeply touching tale that spreads from the early 1980's to the verge of the new millenium. The idea is, of course, a straight steal, and Fry admits it freely. The execution is entirely Fry's impeccable style and enormously entertaining from the first to the last page. If you haven't read it already, do so. Although I suspect the novel's significance and impact may only be savoured to full extent by readers who at least can dimly remember the last century's two decades. Still, a treat.

Next I'd like to recommend a book by a friend and colleague of Mr Fry, Hugh Laurie. His novel The Gun Seller is a terrific thriller, funny and entertaining in many ways, yet not a spoof. For someone not spending his entire time with writing books it's an amazing debut that dosn't only satisfy in style but also in plotting and surprising the reader. The action is splendid, the tone refreshingly laid back.

Then there is Charles Cumming's A Spy By Nature. It's his first book, as far as I'm aware, and it concerns itself with a young urban professional of the 2000's: well-educated underachiever, professional intern, hopping from one work experience to the next, finally sitting a series of interviews and an exam for the Foreign Office (read SIS here). And failing, but not so completely that he couldn't be of use in some less official function. It's a very down to earth thriller, relying mostly on suspense and intrigue. I think it's probably as authentic as we are ever going to read some report of the espionage world. Also puts the rubbish of the "special relationship" into the bin, together with most other romantic misconceptions about the subject.

#29 Loomis

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Posted 07 May 2011 - 12:53 PM

Those other themes, the admiration of craftsmanship and the revulsion of the traders and merchants who exploit that craftsmanship, Hel's aspiration for a simple, Zen-like balance of all elements in his life, the Basque cause and its various connections to the terror of these decades, all that is truly baffling in a novel by an American, written firstly for the American market and having to prove itself right there. Who has ever heard of Euskara? Who occupies oneself with spelunking? Which of the Volvo owners would really kick their car? And who outside the relatively small group of afficionados ever set out to learn a game called Go? Most of the memorable detail Shibumi is regarded so highly for is really characterisation and serves to flesh out Hel. Hardly anything of it serves to get the plot going or moving; that practically happens without Hel's doing. And the plot, if stripped down to the actual activities of the protagonists, is relatively simple and spreads only over a few days of actual time in the present. Even the action, if we discount the various mentions in reports and third-party recollections from Hel's past, is relatively sparse for a thriller of 400 plus pages. And we only get to see Hel in action I think somewhere close to the halfway line for the first time.

Given all that it's really surprising to me that the book was published in this very form, its highly topical and most un-PC politics and Hel's utter contempt for our society aside. Shibumi is, apart from its genre-spoof, to some extent the work of an extremely erudite and refined writer who is essentially writing about his very own interests and views. In a genre work of espionage and suspense such has become sparse.


And regrettably so. I love the sort of book you've just described. Not coincidentally, perhaps, by far my favourite of the Bond novels is YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, in which the nominal backdrop, Japan, is fleshed out to the point where she becomes arguably the most important "character" in the story (and Tanaka and Henderson are more vividly sketched - and more engaging as human beings - than their counterparts M and Leiter ever were).

When I think of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, I tend to fondly recall not the "thrills" but the wonderful moments of travelogue and characterisation: the geisha party, Bond in his hotel room watching The Seven Detectives, the meal of Kobe beef, the visit to the "national treasure" brothel, and so on. Little moments that somehow loom large. As well as, of course, all the spellbindingly atmospheric stuff on Kuro Island. The "Bondian" and espionage elements of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE are important, of course, but are nowhere near as compelling or resonant as the book's wealth of detail on Japan.

I'm not very well-versed in the spy genre, but I understand that publishers nowadays believe a fast pace to be the main thing readers want. Furthermore, it's assumed (very wrongly, if you ask me) that readers nowadays do a lot of travelling as a matter of course and therefore that no one's interested in travelogue any more and no longer desires to read about locations (and their cultures) brought to life by an author. Heck, they can either go there themselves or look these places up on the internet. Don't slow down that fast pace! So if SHIBUMI and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE were submitted today, much of the content would be automatically dismissed as fat and padding. Lose this boring, irrelevant travelogue! Suck all the life out of it and put in another action scene! I think it's a crying shame.

Cockpit I didn't like so much, probably because the episodic structure to me seemed too fragmented, I couldn't care enough for Tarden and his strange pastime.


Yeah. I re-read COCKPIT a couple of years ago and had the same reaction. Perhaps I missed the point of it.

Then there is Charles Cumming's A Spy By Nature. It's his first book, as far as I'm aware, and it concerns itself with a young urban professional of the 2000's: well-educated underachiever, professional intern, hopping from one work experience to the next, finally sitting a series of interviews and an exam for the Foreign Office (read SIS here). And failing, but not so completely that he couldn't be of use in some less official function. It's a very down to earth thriller, relying mostly on suspense and intrigue. I think it's probably as authentic as we are ever going to read some report of the espionage world. Also puts the rubbish of the "special relationship" into the bin, together with most other romantic misconceptions about the subject.


A friend has also recommended Cumming to me (incidentally, Cumming has made a couple of posts here on CBn back in the day and seems a very nice chap), although I may have to hold off reading A SPY BY NATURE as certain parts of your description chime with a novel I'm writing at the moment. I read and enjoyed Cumming's most recent book, TYPHOON.

Whether this counts as an espionage novel, I don't know, but I thoroughly recommend Martin Booth's A VERY PRIVATE GENTLEMAN (recently filmed as THE AMERICAN, starring George Clooney) - very Greene-ish and beautifully written, with a strong sense of location. And this is a bit of an obscure one (and probably out of print, but I reckon used copies can be picked up cheaply on Amazon), as well as a cop thriller as opposed to a spy thriller, but I'm very fond of SAMURAI, INC. by David Klass, in which an FBI agent on a private vendetta goes to Japan and tangles with the Yakuza - it's a gripping yarn that vividly captures Japan at the height of her economic superpower status in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

#30 Dustin

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Posted 07 May 2011 - 03:12 PM

I fully agree on YOLT. Today it would become a victim of the ever-expanding empire of visual/filmic writing, as would Shibumi. Of course if Shibumi is to one's liking chances are the two Jonathan Hemlock books Eiger Sanction/Loo Sanction would also appeal. MkB already pointed them out and in some ways they are a blueprint of the general approach towards the genre Whitaker took in Shibumi. Many of his swipes at the genre and its traditions are even directed quite clearly at Bond. So are small automatics of Italian origin generally regarded as useless rubbish and the customary sleeping with the gun under the cushion is made fun of. Also Hemlock, working solitary as assassin, is a lousy shot and prefers to bring his weapon in a paper bag or a briefcase. His only close quarters combat training he achieved as a kid in the slum he was brought up in and the secret of his success is simply to be the first to punch and not stop until he's sure the opponent stays off his back. In some ways Hemlock is more anti-Bond than Hel, in others Hel is just the consequential result if Hemlock's concept is driven to the hilt.

One other assassin I'm quite fond of is John Rain, a series protagonist in several books by Barry Eisler. They are for the most part typical action thriller stuff, situated in some of the more exotic (for Western minds) corners of the world, Japan, Asia in general, South America and Pacific islands. It is in some ways the Asia thriller that has become popular with Lustbader and Marc Olden - and is rooted to some extent in Shibumi itself - transported into the present. Books are devoid of any literary aspiration and just work as the good old fashioned page-turner. State of the art in that branch of thrillers.

Simon Raven has written a kind of thriller that chiefly celebrates language. Brother Cain would probably not get beyond any editor or literary agent today, yet I was strangely fascinated by it. It's definitely on the wordy side, but it also employs some of the more traditional thriller elements. The twist at the end indeed disturbs.

Another somewhat unusual thriller is Hoffman's Hunger by Leon de Winter. De Winter is one of those writers who first have to find their subject before they can fully shine, and his subject is the endless search for some kind of "Jewish" identity (which can come in many shades and themes, depending on his subject). Hoffman's Hunger was written before he chose that main theme, and so it concerns itself with a variety of different elements, self-destruction by gluttony, the tragic loss of children, the estrangement in marriage and work, betrayal, adultery and so on. Once more, espionage comes only from an angle. But the setting of the novel is Prague in 1989, shortly before the revolution (and it was written only in 1990, with the events still fresh in the minds of readers and de Winter himself), so it's in many ways a record of the time and the, sometimes naive, hopes for the future of the continent. Felix Hoffman, Dutch ambassador to Prague and sleepless for twenty years, spends his nights eating without restraint, cramming his mouth and his guts with pounds of food, some of it already spoilt. Munching away, while sitting on the toilet he ponders the tragic fate that destroyed his life's happiness, his marriage and his health. In this state of utter desolation he meets Irena, a young Czech woman, and after sleeping with her Hoffman for the first time in decades is able to sleep and see his dead daughters in his dreams. For this he's so grateful that he would do anything for the young woman. Who is not what she seems. Elementary.

The espionage frame here is not the core of the book. But if you give Hoffman a chance he's really a memorable, if pitiful, character and his downfall is almost Shakepearean in quality. I suspect Bond and Fleming might have loved the book.



EDIT:
Oh, almost forgot one of my all-time-favourites: Eric Ambler, one of the great masters of the thriller and a pioneer in his own right. My personal favourite is Epitaph For A Spy, a classic innocent-victim-has-to-find-the-villain that would have been stuff for a Hitchcock film. In a small hotel at the Cote d'Azur a tourist, an emigre from some Eastern Europe country, is arrested on charges of espionage, shortly before the break out of World War II. The films he handed in to process at the village's small tabac show shots of a French Naval installation. Only, the he didn't take those shots. So somebody else must have used his Laica, probably by accident. The tourist is released from custody to investigate at the hotel. Should he not find the real spy he'll be deported to his home country. And the camps the facists have opened there...

It's a real page turner and a terrific piece of suspense, absolutely thrilling and 100 per cent authentic. If you ever wondered how one of those thousands of supposedly unwilling agents the genre teems with would feel about their involvement, well here it is. Naked terror, black despair, utter fear and hopelessness. An ordinary guy, out of his depth and forced to learn quickly if he doesn't want to disappear in a concentration camp.

Re: the travelogue and its creeping disappearence from popular fiction. I regard this truly as a major loss in our fiction and I feel sure (genre-)editors make a huge mistake there. If I look at the figures of popular BBC programmes and the books their presenters write based on them then I see a definite demand for such elements and an audience that appreciates them. Michael Palin hasn't just discovered a small niche. He's catering to a powerful demand for the curious and for the first-hand experience of actually contacting foreign culture and customs. So often the everyday experience of world travel - what we are supposedly so used to - ends just in some utter monstrosity of a tourist ghetto, some exchangeable hotel chain with some fattening franchise dreck chain as food surrogate and some brain-dead opinionated broadcast waste on the 365 telly channels. We are traveling but everywhere we travel it's the same as on our couches, our flats and houses. I think in reality we travel much less than our parents used to.

Edited by Dustin, 07 May 2011 - 06:50 PM.





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