Thursday, November 26, 2009

Shimbashi! Shimbashi!

And now, from the same person who recommended The Rule of Four, comes Shibumi!

It's an interesting book... not my normal genre, but I do enjoy a good spy action story as much as the next guy.  That said, one of the oddest things about Shibumi is how little action there is.  The vast majority of the novel is spent building up just how awesome this one particular agent/assassin guy is, but virtually everything violent takes place offstage.  I think this is deliberate: the name of the novel, Shibumi, is also the main character's primary purpose in life: as described in this book, shibumi is a kind of simplicity, a stripping away of life's noise and focus on the important things of life.


The novel does jump around quite a bit.  It starts off as a spy story, becomes a character study, spends some time as a World War II novel, and contains an extremely long segment on cave exploration.  I imagine that this is largely disappointing to people who are mainly looking for a James Bond-style yarn; personally, I enjoy the variety in the prose.

The characters are pretty interesting, although it's painfully obvious that this book was written in the 1970's.  I cringed at the strong racist generalizations that are made throughout the whole book, and at the in-your-face sexist attitude towards women.  You can partially apologize for the racism because the targets are so varied: he does criticize the French and Russians and British, but also the Americans and Spanish and Basque.  Still, the descriptions of Arabs and Palestinians are particularly crude and offensive... it goes beyond the more rote criticisms of "Americans are immature and materialistic, the French are snotty, the British make bad food."

The cultures that largely escape criticism are Japanese and, to a lesser extent, Chinese.  The Basque get plenty of criticism but are also among the only group that receives specific praise.  He's largely silent on Israel, though the few comments he does make seem complimentary, especially in comparison to the vitriol directed at its Arab neighbors.

The main character, Nicholai Hel, only appears a few chapters into the book, but swiftly takes over and dominates the story.  He's pretty awesome - a bit too awesome, to be honest.  Trevanian seems to spend the whole book describing all the ways in which Hel is more amazing than anyone else, and the character feels really overstuffed as a result: the ultimate assassin, and one of the only mystics in the world, who is also fluent in six languages, and has an incredibly refined palette, and is one of the most effective lovers in the world, and on and on... characters need flaws, and Trevanian seems extremely reluctant to assign any to his chosen hero.


All my complaints aside, though, this book is quite enjoyable to read.  Despite the lack of action, the book moves quickly, with a nice mix of mystery and surprise plot developments to keep your interest.  I can't get behind the author's worldview, but from a storytelling point of view, he does a fine job of writing a fun tale that expands beyond its genre borders.

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