Shibumi by Trevanian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“It was ironic to realize that the destruction of the world would not be the work of Machiavelli, but of Sancho Panza.” (page 137)
Shibumi (1979) is a novel written by Trevanian (Rodney William Whitaker).
Nicholai Hel, the main character, was born in Shanghai. His mother is a deposed member of the Russian aristocracy. Nicholai’s adoptive father, Kishigawa, is a general in the Japanese Imperial Army. Kishikawa teaches to Nicholai about the concept of Shibumi.
Shibumi (noun) - Shibui (adjective): one doesn’t tire of a shibui object but constantly finds new meanings and enriched beauty.
“Shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. … Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. … In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive, it is being without the angst of becoming … And in the personality of a man, it is … Authority without domination?” (page 77)
Wabi-sabi represents a Japanese point of view, or aesthetic: the main principle is about the acceptance of the temporary.
When Kishikawa has to join the Japanese army in Manchuria, Nicholai becomes the pupil of a master of Go. So Nicholai learns to play Go.
“Go is to western chess what philosophy is to double-entry accounting.” (page 165)
Kishigawa is captured by the Russian, to avoid the trial Nicholai kills his adoptive father. Soon Nicholai is captured by the Americans and held in jail, where he is tortured.
During his imprisonment Nicholai retains his sanity studying the Basque language. In jail he also develops a sense of proximity: he manages to feel people near him, although in darkness.
After three years Nicholai gains freedom becoming a spy in the US Intelligence Service. Nicholai asks for the names of those who tortured him as payment for his service .
Nicholai becomes a skillful killer, and in his fifties he retires in the mountain of the Basque country, living with his mistress, Hana, in a shibui way.
Nicholai becomes an expert in caving, accompanied by his best friend Le Cagot.
“This most primitive nightmares involve falling through the dark, or wandering lost through mazes of alien chaos. And the caver - crazy being that he is - volitionally chooses to face these nightmare conditions. That is why he is more insane than the climber, because the thing he risks at every moment is his sanity.” (page 235)
Nicholai’s existence is interrupted by the arrival in his castle of Hannah, the niece of a man who saved Nicholai’s life.
Hel, Hana, and Hannah: three hs, surrounded by another h: hate. And facing hate, shibumi; or, better, they are side by side.
Although Shibumi resembles a spy story by John LeCarre`, the background and suggestions of the story expand the espionage ambit, such as fights between powerful organizations.
Trevanian tells also about ways of life (shibumi), cultural anthropological (Basque People), and Anti-Americanism sentiment (Nicholai leaves Japan, protesting against Westernization of Japan; remembering the same idea of Yukio Mishima).
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