SHIBUMI (understated elegance) (effortless perfection)

Cover of "Shibumi"
Cover of Shibumi

This may be the longest book commentary/review I’ve ever written, as priceless quotes abound throughout the book and I plan to include many.  All are from the 2011 paperback copy.  I’m including numerous info links.  Use them after your first read of the review or as you go.  You choose.

Trevanian’s SHIBUMI.  Originally published in 1979.  Trevanian is one of the pen names of Rodney William Whitaker (1931-2005).  He notably wrote The Eiger Sanction.  “In the process of converting this novel into a vapid film, a fine young climber was killed.” (Author’s footnote pg. 167.)  His estate authorized the writing of the prequel to this book, SATORI by Don Winslow.  (My Satori comments.)

“…shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances.”

Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge.  Eloquent silence.  In demeanor, it is modesty without pudency.  In art, …it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity.  In philosophy, …is spiritual tranquility that is not passive, it is being without the angst of becoming.”

“One does not achieve it, one …discovers it.”

“…one must pass through knowledge and arrive at simplicity.”

(All from pg. 77.)  (Pudency.)  (Modesty, with shame.)

The book SHIBUMI is the proverbial “…riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…”.  (Winston Churchill.)  (Proverbial, proverb, epigram, maxim.)

I read SATORI (prequel by another author, links above) and my curiosity was significantly aroused to pursue the story in SHIBUMI.

In my opinion the cover endorsements on the paperback edition get it wrong about the book.

“The only writer of airport paperbacks to be compared to Zola, Ian Fleming, Poe, and Chaucer.” –New York Times.  Airport paperbacks?!?!  Sounds like a barely polite euphemism for pulp fiction.  Writers of all genres (including pulp fiction) should be offended to be categorized as being merely worthy of filling airport shelves with illiterate works for passing travelers.  But what do you expect from the New York Times and their singular evaluation of their own self-importance.  🙂

Then there is “It’s hard to imagine a more nearly perfect spy story.” –Milwaukee Journal. What are they smoking, but not reading, up there in Wisconsin?  SHIBUMI is barely a spy story at all.  I admit after reading SATORI I “expected” a combination espionage/assassin thriller but the actual ‘spy story’, as excellent as it is, probably consumes only 25% or so of the novel.  The rest is back (front, and side) story, equally excellent in its own right, but not spy story per se.

Herein lies the riddle, mystery, and enigma.  I think the book is the author’s philosophical commentary on life and contemporary humanity, much more than just the brief moralizing you may get in many works of fiction.  The caricature shell of a spy story is his method of presenting it.  In that respect it reminds me slightly of ISLAND by Aldous Huxley, though it doesn’t wax nearly as philosophical as that thin tome.

A fictional novel about the game Go is a brief part of the story in Shibumi.  “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.”   “…The book was in, 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.”  (Pg 130-131.)

Perhaps that is an allusion to SHIBUMI itself.  The lead character is a fictional master assassin.  There is more intellectual, philosophical critique than I have ever seen in a spy thriller or ‘airport paperback’.  I can only speculate what the author’s motives were.

The outright philosophical fiction of Ayn Rand not withstanding (Atlas Shrugged, Fountainhead, et al), I have never highlighted so many passages in what I thought was going to be light, pure entertainment, reading.  (Ayn Rand on the other hand is neither light nor pure entertainment reading.)

Let me present a few passages for you to contemplate, if you will:

“America, after all, was populated by the lees and failures of Europe.  Recognizing this, we must see them as innocent.  As innocent as the adder, as innocent as the jackal. Dangerous and treacherous, but not sinful.  You spoke of them as a despicable race.  They are not a race.  They are not even a culture.  They are a cultural stew of the orts and leavings of the European feast.  At best, they are a mannered technology.  In place of ethics, they have rules.  Size functions for them as quality functions for us.  What for us is honor and dishonor, for them is winning and losing.”  (Pg 103.)

[I have sometimes contemplated, in the abysmal abyss of my mind, the lack of tangible heritage many of us WASPs derive from.  I admire Jews and American Indians for theirs. As an Indian guide once noted on a tour I did of pueblo ruins, “You have no roots”.  No grounding, no foundation, no guideposts.  Advantage, or disadvantage?  Still contemplating.]

“You can gain experience, if you are careful to avoid empty redundancy.  Do not fall into the error of the artisan who boasts of twenty years experience in craft while in fact he has had only one year of experience–twenty times.  And never resent the advantge of experience your elders have.  Recall that they have paid for this experience in the coin of life, and have emptied a purse that cannot be refilled.”  (Pg 109.)

“(He) arrived at a kind of emotional truce with the Americans among whom he worked.  This is not to say that he came to like them, or to trust them; but he came to realize that they were not the amoral, depraved people their political and military behavior suggest they were.  True, they were culturally immature, brash, and clumsy, materialistic and historically myopic, loud, bold, and endlessly tiresome in social encounters; but at the bottom they were good-hearted and hospitable; willing to share–indeed insistent upon sharing–their wealth and ideology with all the world.
Above all, he came to recognize that all Americans were merchants, that the core of the American Genius, of the Yankee Spirit, was buying and selling.  They vended their democratic ideology like hucksters, supported by the great protection racket of armaments deals and economic pressures.  Their wars were monumental exercises in production and supply.  Their government was a series of social contracts.  Their education was sold as so much per unit hour.  There marriages were emotional deals, the contracts easily broken if one party failed in his debt-servicing.  Honor for them consisted in fair trading.  And they were not, as they thought, a classless society; they were a one-class society–the mercantile.”  (Pg 126-127.)

“The Americans seemed to confuse standard of living with quality of life, equal opportunity with institutionalized mediocrity, bravery with courage, machismo with manhood, liberty with freedom, wordiness with articulation, fun with pleasure–in short, all of the misconceptions common to those who assume that justice implies equality for all, rather than equality for equals.”  (Pg 137.)

“We would all be happier if the Palestinian issue (and the Palestinians with it) would simply disappear.  They’re a nasty, ill-disciplined, vicious lot who history happened to put in the position of a symbol of Arab unity.”  (Pg 228.)

“…and the concept of fair play is totally alien to the mentality of the French, a people who have produced generations of aristocrats, but not a single gentleman; a culture in which the legal substitutes for the fair; a language in which the only word for fair play is the borrowed English.”  (Pg 266.)

“It’s not Americans I find annoying; it’s Americanism: a social disease of the postindustrial world that must inevitably infect each of the mercantile nations in turn, and is called ‘American’ only because your nation is the most advanced case of the malady…   …Its symptoms are a loss of work ethic, a shrinking of inner resources, and a constant need for external stimulation, followed by spiritual decay and moral narcosis.  You can recognize the victim by his constant efforts to get in touch with himself, to believe his spiritual feebleness is an interesting psychological warp, to construe his fleeing from responsibility as evidence that he and his life are uniquely open to new experience.”  (Pg 306.)

“It is revealing of the American culture that its prototypic hero is the cowboy: an uneducated, boorish, Victorian migrant agricultural worker.”  (Pg 341.)

…to cite a few.

This American-born author certainly has his opinions of his fellow countrymen!  All of them are still applicable to todays mores.  The role and opinions of “big oil” in the book are equally apropos.  (Recall the book was published in 1979, 32 years ago.)

In retrospect I’ve revealed practically nothing about the story and will leave it that way. Having a lot of time on my hands at the moment, I inhaled the book in a matter of a few days, which is fast for me.  It IS an espionage/assassin thriller, and a very good one, but it does not consume itself with that solely.  Don’t expect it to be a Ludlum, Silva, Baldacci, Flynn non-stop action book, though the shell story will not disappoint.  The front, back, and side stories (just a little off the top please) are immensely entertaining, and the social/philosophical commentary is priceless.

Airport paperbacks.  Give.. me.. a.. break..

Tsuru no Sugomori.  (“The confinement of the cranes to their nest,” a graceful maneuver in which the enemy stones are captured.) SHIBUMI – preface to Pt. One.

7 thoughts on “SHIBUMI (understated elegance) (effortless perfection)

  1. enjoyable post, thanks. I’m currently reading Shibumi, after finding it on a book shelf in my parent’s house, gathering dust. The cover (as you have used in the post) caught my attention, and after reading about Trevanian and the book, I had to give it a go. so far, it’s great. I will look forward to sharing my post with you! here’s a link to my blog, where I will be posting my review of Shibumi soon:


  2. I enjoyed his views on American Liberals. :Young, intelligent mid-American, cause-oriented. He knew the type. She would have been a Liberal, back when that was still fashionable. She was the kind who sought “relevance” in everything; who expressed her lack of critical judgment as freedom from prejudice; who worried about Third World hunger, but shambled about a university campus with a huge protein-gobbling dog—symbol of her love for all living things.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s