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Shibumi


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#31 Loomis

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Posted 12 May 2011 - 01:39 AM

A couple of posters on this thread have commented that Hel "has no weaknesses whatsoever" and is "too perfect", but that's not the impression I'm getting as I pass the halfway mark on my re-read of SHIBUMI (I'm currently midway through the long cave-diving episode).

Particularly during the parts of the book set in World War II and the occupation of Japan, Hel is often portrayed as vulnerable and uncertain. He's emotionally conflicted, suffers depression and is sometimes even slow on the uptake and hoodwinked by others. He also undergoes mental and physical agony through torture, although it's pretty obvious that the poor guy is psychologically damaged from the get-go, thanks in no small part to his appalling mother. Then again, he is capable of deep love and friendship (and thus also capable of being wounded by these things, which indeed happens in the book) - for instance, his relationship with the Japanese general is a very moving part of his story. So I don't understand the view that he's some kind of flawless, godlike and utterly cold and sterile cross between a zen master and The Terminator.

Sure, Hel has some remarkable abilities: his intellect, his flair for languages and his genius at the game of go, as well as his sixth sense and, of course, his esoteric arsenal of assassin's tricks. Undeniably, he isn't just yer average hitman. At the same time, though, there's certainly some vulnerability and humanity to the character, and I don't believe that the novel would be particularly engaging were those qualities not in place. I'll go even further and suggest that Hel is actually the classic underdog hero, who works his way up from stateless orphan on the rubble-strewn streets of Shanghai to find that, culturally and temperamentally, he's on the wrong side of history and must prevail against the crushing might of those blasted mercantile American barbarians who've drowned out all that is good and shibumi-infused in this world.

Apart from which, I'm not really sure what to make of SHIBUMI. I am enjoying it tremendously.... but is it a classic that will richly repay further readings? Maybe.

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.


Very true.

#32 Dustin

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Posted 12 May 2011 - 05:23 PM

I really have to reread Shibumi, it's been too many years since I last did. The thing I recall most vividly about Hel is that in my view he's really a tragic character. From the moment he's involved with Americans he's despising them, especially those of his CIA contacts. His personal philosophy makes him loathe the merchants, but I always felt that was also his blind spot and the weakness that ultimately cost his lover Hana her sight. Hel could have forseen the way the mother company would ultimately get back at him. As he could have forseen the way Diamond would seek revenge for his brother. But Hel is too sure of himself, too biased and bigoted to look beyond the horizon of his own personal set of prejudices. His particular ancestry and upbringing, his socıalısation amid the turmoil of Asia during World War II, all that has left him with a unique view at post war Japan and the world, as it would any person living during this time under such circumstances. But I always felt in Hel's case this became not just part of his personality, but also a kind of internal prison Hel never was quite able to escape from. Because he didn't even realize it was what ultimately kept him from his state of shibui for so long. His tragedy is not that he's arrogant and socially defective; it is that he's in full possession of all necessary clues to his drama, but ultimately can still not escape his fate and prevent the destruction of so much that is dear to him.

Edited by Dustin, 12 May 2011 - 05:24 PM.


#33 Loomis

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Posted 12 May 2011 - 09:34 PM

The thing I recall most vividly about Hel is that in my view he's really a tragic character.


That's pretty much my view of him so far.

But Hel is too sure of himself, too biased and bigoted to look beyond the horizon of his own personal set of prejudices. His particular ancestry and upbringing, his socıalısation amid the turmoil of Asia during World War II, all that has left him with a unique view at post war Japan and the world, as it would any person living during this time under such circumstances. But I always felt in Hel's case this became not just part of his personality, but also a kind of internal prison Hel never was quite able to escape from. Because he didn't even realize it was what ultimately kept him from his state of shibui for so long.


Bang on. And, yes, Hel can be supercilious, but it does read to me like the proverbial defence mechanism to mask a deep-seated sense of inadequacy, as opposed to the behaviour of a godlike being who genuinely believes himself to be awesome.

Also, being a professional assassin (although Trevanian tells us that he only kills "terrorists", which presumably means that the people he wipes out are, to quote Schwarzenegger in TRUE LIES, all bad*), he's undoubtedly something of a coldhearted bastard for much of the time. Yet none of this stops him from being a human and sympathetic tragic figure - to my mind, at least.

Something that's also struck me while re-reading SHIBUMI is that Hel's assignments are (so far, at least - I don't know whether this changes during the course of the book) glossed over by Trevanian to the extent that one wonders whether the author had any real interest whatsoever in his protagonist's profession. His assignments are mentioned briefly by other characters ("He did such-and-such for the IRA, then such-and-such for the U.S. government, then such-and-such for the Israelis...."), but that's about it. It's as though Trevanian was interested chiefly in writing a character study (with digressions into such topics as WWII-era Japan and underground cave exploration) and simply tacked on the international hitman angle so that SHIBUMI could be marketed as a globetrotting espionage thriller and become a bestseller.

Not that I'm complaining, though. Far from it. I adore the sort of characterisation, atmosphere, travelogue and general eccentricity that Trevanian serves up here - after all, conventional thrillers are seldom very interesting. But it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that SHIBUMI is a sort of Trojan Horse of a novel disguised as a bestseller for airport bookstalls and beach reading.

*Or maybe not. For all I know, Trevanian means the reader to conclude that, since one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, Hel has as much innocent or good guy blood on his hands as he does the blood of evil men.

#34 dodge

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Posted 05 June 2011 - 05:26 PM

I still plan to read the book, but, imo, it has one strike against it. And I do mean the title. Shibumi was a splendid title for a splendid book--one that dealt with an exotic concept, showing that concept in motion. Satori has three syllables and starts with the letter S, ending with the letter I...and yet it barks because we yawn. Thumbs down on the title.

#35 MkB

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Posted 12 June 2011 - 07:57 PM

If you're interested in Trevanian and have read Carte Blanche, you may be interested in checking this thread: http://debrief.comma...59#entry1157359

#36 Yellow Pinky

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Posted 26 July 2017 - 06:14 PM

Just finished reading Shibumi and absolutely loved it.  I can't tell you the number of times I held this book in my hands back in 1980, the year I graduated High School, trying to decide if it was for me.  Now, all these years later, I know that I never would have clicked with it then.  

I don't think I've ever read a book where the style of writing and the commentary that takes place around the plot are actually the point and focus of the book.  So original!

Has anyone read Winslow's Sartori?  I'm very intrigued to get opinions on that one if there are any.



#37 Dustin

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Posted 26 July 2017 - 07:08 PM

I've read Satori some time ago. As a thriller it was pretty decent but I thought it didn't quite manage to capture the period 50s atmosphere. And it wasn't quite what you'd expect from a Shibumi prequel. But it was entertaining enough, easily one of the better thrillers of recent years. Didn't seem to kick off a series though, as some might have hoped.

#38 Yellow Pinky

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Posted 26 July 2017 - 07:26 PM

I've read Satori some time ago. As a thriller it was pretty decent but I thought it didn't quite manage to capture the period 50s atmosphere. And it wasn't quite what you'd expect from a Shibumi prequel. But it was entertaining enough, easily one of the better thrillers of recent years. Didn't seem to kick off a series though, as some might have hoped.

Well, that still seems to be a pretty strong recommendation.  Shibumi is so unique in execution that I couldn't imagine a prequel/sequel matching it on that front.  I figured that Sartori is probably a more traditionally escapist thriller.  

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dustin!



#39 Dustin

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Posted 26 July 2017 - 08:22 PM

Could be there is somewhere in the lit forum a review of Satori, I distinctly remember having written a few sentences...

#40 billy007

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Posted 27 July 2017 - 06:49 AM

I recall an article in Jim Steranko's MediaScene Prevue circa early 80's that Sir Sean was being asked to consider playing Hel in a movie adaptation. He would have been perfect back then.  Pretty certain this was pre Untouchables



#41 Yellow Pinky

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Posted 27 July 2017 - 05:55 PM

Could be there is somewhere in the lit forum a review of Satori, I distinctly remember having written a few sentences...

Yes, I found it.  Thanks for the heads up.  Think I'll give SATORI a try.  Sounds intriguing!






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