Joyce Lagow's Reviews > Shibumi

Shibumi by Trevanian
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Jan 08, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: kindle-edition, adventure-thriller


Advertised as an 80s-style international spy thriller, Shibumi has surprisingly little of the type of action expected from that genre, although there is some. Contrasting with pre-World War II Japanese traditional values and culture, Trevanian delivers an utterly damning, contemptuous critique of Western (i.e., developed world) mores and attitudes; he is particularly scornful of American culture, although Germany, France, and the British certainly come in for their share. The vehicle he uses for his story is Nicolai Alexandrovich Hel, the son of a White Russian mother and a Prussian father. Born in Shanghai, Nicolai is still a young, though street-wise, boy when the Japanese invade China and take over Shaghai . Brilliant, he comes under the protection of a Japanese general, who sends him to Japan to be educated by a Japanese Go master. Hel comes in contact (more like massive culture shock) with American culture when, after the war, he is forced to work for the Americans as a translator, and comes to hate everything American culture is.

There is a long section on caving, Hel’s favorite “sport”, which is interesting even to someone like me who has never had nor ever will have any desire whatsoever to cave. It’s a fascinating look into that world--what it takes to explore and to claim discovery of a new cave system.

I enjoyed the book a great deal, agreeing with much of what Trevanian has to say about the sterility of American values. While I’m not sure that was what was intended, I found the scenes involving the CIA to be funny; the whole organization from top down is portrayed as a sort of 80s Keystone Kops.

This is a stand-alone book, not any part of a series, but I am intrigued enough by Trevanian’s attitudes that I intend to read more of his work just to see what he does in other genres. Don’t look for tremendous character development; this book is more philosophy well-disguised as fiction, but to my mind, entertaining while thought-provoking.

Highly recommended.
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