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153 of 162 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Modern medieval anti-hero of the establishment.
When this novel was first published in 1979, the leading critics had a difficult time classifying the work. It wasn't exactly an espionage thriller or an epic, but it seemed to touch upon many genres and themes. ~Shibumi~ is a fictional biography more than anything else, for its central character, Nicholai Hel, is the tale's main concern. A minor character in the story...
Published on October 8, 2003 by C. Middleton

versus
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Quick read but not what I remembered
I read this novel years ago, in the 1980s. At the time, I thought it was imaginative, thrilling, and sophisticated. After stumbling across it again just recently and re-reading it, I found it to be interesting, but not at all like I remembered. The first time I read it, I took it at face value, but now can see this is obviously a send-up of spy novels. It is somewhat...
Published on December 26, 2010 by Dr. Christian B. Smart


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153 of 162 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Modern medieval anti-hero of the establishment., October 8, 2003
This review is from: Shibumi (Mass Market Paperback)
When this novel was first published in 1979, the leading critics had a difficult time classifying the work. It wasn't exactly an espionage thriller or an epic, but it seemed to touch upon many genres and themes. ~Shibumi~ is a fictional biography more than anything else, for its central character, Nicholai Hel, is the tale's main concern. A minor character in the story sums up the protagonist superbly at the end of the book by calling him half saintly ascetic, half Vandal marauder - a medieval anti-hero. Nicholai Hel is your vintage 'man-against-the establishment' with a mind like a steel trap and the tastes and lifestyle of an 18th century aristocrat. His pedigree is a throw back to the German/Russian elite, where generations of breeding and culture have contributed to his unusual character. Nicholai is a man without a country, a natural mystic, philosopher, linguist, master of Go, a complex Japanese board game of high strategy, and most importantly, a self trained assassin for hire who is expert in the arts of naked/kill. More than this, he is a seeker of spiritual perfection, his ultimate goal being that hard to define state or condition known as Shibumi.
Trevanian (Rodney Whitaker) is a first rate writer. His technical skill in the craft well exceeds many leading 'thriller' writers of today. When one reads about the art of naked/kill, the mystical states of Nicholai Hel, or even the machinations of the CIA and their unscrupulous methods for creating and combating terror, one gets the distinct impression that the author knows exactly what he's talking about and must have access to some kind of inside information. His writing is almost too believable. Throughout the reading, I had to continue to remind myself that this novel was written in 1979, well before the general public had any concern about terrorism. Other than the main character, this tale is about corruption in governments, who will go to any lengths to secure oil rights in the Middle East. The book is also about technology, which has aided civilization in many ways, yet has eroded our basic values. In many respects, Nicholai Hel is a modern Luddite, despising machines in all their forms, and the waste they create. Nicholai Hel is an 'everyman' character, a representation of the virtuous individual, alone and pitted against the dangerous technological and consumerist values of the herd. In the end, however, does Nicholai Hel win this battle over the modern, vulgar, techno-centred majority and finally attain 'Shibumi'?
This work should be considered a classic, for it has a timelessness about it, and can be read many times, for it will continue to offer intellectual stimulation as well as pure entertainment for many years to come.
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70 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Even though it's been said before..., July 22, 2001
This review is from: Shibumi (Mass Market Paperback)
I had never intended to add my own review to the (mostly excellent) list of reviews already submitted regarding this masterpiece. I have read Shibumi many times over the past several years; I keep coming back to it for the beautifully crafted and evocative descriptions, the witty dialogue, and the succinct, yet poignant philosophical insights. There's not much for me to add that hasn't already been said, but I feel compelled to answer this book's critics from Oceanside and elsewhere:
Query: Nicholai Hel as the stereotypic hero of the mass-market thriller novel genre? He who eschews electricity and other modern conveniences, who views his automobile as a necessary evil, and whose primary pleasures in life are meditation and continuing devotion to the improvement of a garden he knows will never be perfect?
No, I don't think critics of this book are turned off by the fact that Hel is identical to every other action hero they've encountered. I suspect that the real animosity comes from the fact that Trevanian's criticisms of contemporary society hit a little too close to the mark. Let me state for the record that I am an American and readily acknowledge myself to be guilty of some of the afflictions of contemporary American society that Trevanian elucidates. But critics of this book, such as those from Oceanside, remind me of the passage early in Shibumi where Otake-san reminds young Nicholai that the modern novellist will not dare create a truly superior hero, because "in his rage of shame the (modern man) will send his yojimbo, the critic" to defend him. Regarding the precious philosophical insights and social commentary of the book, I suspect that some unsophisticated readers find themselves in a situation analogous to that of the novice reader who tries to comprehend Nicholai's satirical description (published under a pseudonym) of the Masters' game of Go.
I have read many of the modern "thrillers" by Clancy, Ludlum, Crichton, Clavell, et al. By and large, these authors are good story tellers and produce compelling reads. Not a one of them, however, rivals Trevanian in terms of artistic brilliance. He can turn a phrase unlike any other contemporary author that I have read. And while Trevanian's oeuvre may never have the cultural importance or influence (due in part to his tongue-in-cheek approach and the obvious enjoyment he derives from writing) of a Stendhal, Balzac, Dostoevsky or Hardy, the indignation and bewilderment he inspires in the culturally immature certainly serves as a backhanded compliment to him and his work. His other books, especially The Main, are also brilliant.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stands the test of time, February 23, 2006
This review is from: Shibumi (Mass Market Paperback)
Looking through a few of the reviews here, I felt compelled to make a few comments.

On the subject of Shibumi, it is not portrayed as a "spaced out" state of mind as some have alluded (that was reserved for the portrayal of "mysticism"). It is an intangible quality which someone of a certain way of life possesses.

I believe that while certain parts of the book appear to lean toward bigotry, they are valuable in that they both reflect common attitudes at the time of writing and in many cases cleverly parody these.

The lack of focus, the abstractness the constant metaphors and reflections are precisely what the book is about to me, charging full on down a track of "building satisfying plot" would miss part of (my perceived) point of the book.

The opening chapter reads like a crappy spy novel. Don't be put off by it. I returned to the book recently having not read it for many years and almost put it back down, assuming my fondness for it must have developed when my reading habits were less refined. I'm glad I persevered. This book definitely makes my top 5 :)
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to be a Man in a Craven Age, October 16, 2005
This review is from: Shibumi (Mass Market Paperback)
Nicolai Hel: Master Assassin, Philosopher, modern day Samurai, spelunker, expert Lover, Warrior. Man.

Let me repeat that: Man. I discovered Trevanian and "Shibumi" in high school, and I must confess that it completely changed my life. I vowed to live my life as Nicolai Hel would have, had he been a teen-ager in Utah in the 1980's. Happily, it worked out.

Trevanian concocted this wildly wicked, politically pungent, nastily anti-PC rattling tale of assassination, global conspiracy, New World Order, CIA incompetence, and global capitalist corruption in the 1980's, but it remains a masterwork of espionage fiction and a blueprint for Samurai living even in these dark and mediocre times. Frankly, it is a road-map for becoming a Man.

Protagonist Hannah Stern, a Jewish American activist nearly slaughtered by Arab terrorists in an assassination strike in the Rome airport, seeks aid and comfort from the reclusive Nicolai Hel, now rusticating with his exquisite Oriental lover in a chateau high the Pyrenees, secluded among his Basque supporters, stolid in his Japanese Shinto meditation. Hel hates the mindless activity of squalid bourgeois society, batters his Volvo with rocks, enjoys the philosophical freedom of his Japanese garden and meditational lodge---and is nonetheless pulled into a war of wits, blood, and steel with the CIA and the amorphous but all-consuming "Mother Company".

"Shibumi" is rebellious, cynical, heroic, delicious. Hel, son of a doomed Russian countess, learns quickly from his mentor, a Japanese General presiding over the rape of Nanking. He becomes a Master Assassin, making his fortune from the misery he deservedly inflicts on others that would make the world of Man a galactic Hell. Hel now retreats, like a Brown Recluse, in his sumptuous castle in the land of the Basque, cloaked in anonymity and fortified by his exotic Oriental lover. But perfection can last only so long.

"Shibumi" is Trevanian at his best, and as such is espionage fiction at is best. It is cynical, wicked, brutal, and nasty: as a result it introduces you, the reader, to a world---not of black and white---but of grey, a world in which killing is merely a means by which one preserves the status quo. Or honor. Or anonymity.

"Shibumi", I think, is about self-awareness. It is unflinchingly politically incorrect, so be warned before you start your descent. It is expertly stocked with unforgettable characters, and depending on your level of unabashed romanticism, will probably make you cry.

For all of these reasons, "Shibumi"---if you're adventurous in spirit, anyway---is a book you have to read before you die. And in the happiest compliment I can pay to Trevanian, it may change the manner by which you die. Good luck.

JSG
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Be prepared to be changed, February 17, 2001
This review is from: Shibumi (Mass Market Paperback)
This is a spy novel/thriller which transcends all others of the genre. The book contains the most skillful pacing, the most extraordinary, painstakingly wrought, eccentric characters (impossible to forget!) and all the attraction and drama of Myth. The storyline woven by Trevanian reflects the myth-like narrative: intertwined with the actual plot playing in modern times, telling of the efforts of the Mother Company and its minions in the U.S. Government secret services to hunt down the main character Nicholai Hel, are a series of explanatory recounts of the hero's past. This careful and seemingly effortless storytelling mirrors the main character's lofty goal of achieving shibumi, "authority without domination." Trevanian has created one of the most detailed and fascinating character studies I have ever read -- even though, as one poster complained, Hel may be rather too close in character to a superhero to be believable. However, in the context of the plot such a grievance seems irrelevant.. The arrogant Soigné, the cultivated mystic, the frighteningly disciplined Go champion, the calculating murderer, the dedicated speleologist, the practitioner of esoteric sexual techniques, Hel is a paradoxical man who lives by ancient patrician codes of conduct, yet kills his fellow kind for money. Reading of Hel's unorthodox, noble origins, his unusual upbringing and cultivated schooling, and later his humbling privations, loss and even torture, one can forgive his pragmatic decision to earn a living as a paid assassin. Through Hel, Trevanian tries to teach (or is it preach?) to the reader the distinction between pseudo-class, and true style, the synthetic and authentic, discriminating and trend-following, genuine friendship and crass exploitation, the nobility of honor and tradition and the cheezy, superficial trappings of a deteriorating, consumerist culture. Most editors nowadays would probably balk at some of Hel's lengthy, caustic rants against the greedy oil monopolies, America's cultural decline and the corruption of our government. Hel may very well be a mouthpiece for Trevanian's personal doctrine, but I don't much mind if he is. Then there is the writing: rich, superlative; Trevanian seizes the senses and masterfully manipulates them. He is an accomplished veteran of the craft, and Shibumi is his finest and certainly most well known work. This novel abounds with exquisite phrasing and evocative place description. Broad in narrative scope, the emotional tone is alternately snide, then humorous, then terrifying, then poignant, then riveting. I have visited the real village Etchebar, in the Basque mountains, the fictional home of Nicholai Hel. As a sort of spiritual endeavor I re-trod the character Hannah's steps and read again Shibumi's opening chapter. I asked several locals about Trevanian, inquired as to the location of Hel's exquisite Chateau. I received friendly, although cryptic denial of such knowledge. It is said that Trevanian resides in the Southwestern French mountains -- as mysterious and aloof as his most memorable character. Read it, and be prepared to be changed. Maybe you'll even achieve a tiny little shibumi yourself...
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A simple straight-forward thriller? Definitely not..., December 9, 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: Shibumi (Mass Market Paperback)
I've been reading SHIBUMI for the past 15 years, and keep on coming back to it every few weeks. At first SHIBUMI seems like an ordinary thriller - a breathtaking and gripping one, but still not so very unique. After reading it over and over again, however, the emphasis changed, and concentration shifted to the beauty and wisdom of Far East Philosophy. Each and every time another hidden layer of truth is revealed; a new perception of emotions is discovered. This book has been my comfort in hard times, and the best friend in obscured days. There are only 3 words I can say about this book: R-E-A-D I-T N-O-W!!!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting spy thriller novel on many levels, March 31, 2005
By 
therosen "therosen" (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Shibumi (Mass Market Paperback)
During my first read, I remember thinking, "This Hel guy is a better Bond than James himself!" and "I wish I had a friend like le Cagot." At the top level, it is a story of a killer, coming to grips with personal peace in a world of inevitable corruption. That alone would make it a four star book, though perhaps not enough for a more mature audience.

On a second level, one is introduced to deeper moral issues (Example: Justification of all kinds of attrocities - but taken from the point of view of the characters themselves. Are the Basques good because we associate well with Le Cagot) Additionally, the book provides an introduction to Japanese culture that is rapidly fading away. (Who plays Go nowadays?)

Perhaps the most delightful aspect of the novel is how Trevanian pokes fun at himself and the genre he spoofs. In the introduction, he advises "All other characters and organizations in this book lack any basis in reality - although some of them do not realize that." Later, he explains the lack of explicit sexual details with, "In a similar vein, the author shall keep certain advanced sexual techniques in partial shadow, as they might be dangerous, and would certainly be painful, to the neophyte" While we make the book too seriously, Trevanian certainly doesn't. Perhaps because this is art in art, with Trevanian being the educated and witty but cynical alter ego of University of Texas professor Rodney Whitaker.

In some ways, the novel was between it's time. "The Mother Company" harks to both the conspiracy theories of the late 60s and early 70s, as well as the X-files military-industrial complex of the 90s and catering to the oil lobbies in our current decade. The focus on Japan precedes the Japan bashing of the 80s and the Lost in Translation focus of the past few years. That it was written in 1979 places it in an interesting historical context.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, Perfect, Best Book That I've Ever Read, April 9, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Shibumi (Mass Market Paperback)
A perfect book which introduced many wonderful and profound things and concepts into my life. Even the concept of "Shibumi" alone makes this book worth to be read. No need to mention that it includes many philosophical ideas about elitism, democracy, consuming society; information about Eastern culture, GO... This book is the masterpiece of masterpieces. The best book I've ever read. Trevanian has the ultimate talent of using the English language. No other writer (with the exceptions of Douglas Adams, and Jay McInerney in "Story of My Life") makes me laugh so much with their witty and hilarious writings. I made almost everybody around me read the book and they adored the it. For the ones who said it is an OK spy novel; sorry, but you did not get into the depths of the book. Read it again, but this time more carefully. For the ones who loved this book, also read "Summer of Katya" (psychological, but witty) and "Rude Tales and Glorious" (hilarious, clever, funny, great...). They are great, too.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bizarre book which is strangely riveting -- Highly Recommend, January 10, 1997
By A Customer
This review is from: Shibumi (Mass Market Paperback)
This thriller jumps all over the map and moves in and out of a number of off-beat speciality areas (Eastern religion and Zen-like thought; caving; the Spanish Basque region; computers; the spy industry; World War II era history). Its tremendous appeal probably lies in the mystic aura surrounding the almost God-like protagonist, who just happens to be an assasin, but also in the cynical tone the author adopts as he views the world through his characters. The book features excitment, plot movement, sex, adventure and the clashing cultures of espionage and soft emotion. It's occasionally silly, but absolutely powerful. Who can forget the young woman who is punished for life because Nicholas makes love to her -- thereby dooming her to the futile attempt forever more to attempt to match the experience with ordinary lovers!? Bizarre -- but probably the world's finest airplane book. A must read
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic! I come back to it over and over!, April 9, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Shibumi (Mass Market Paperback)
I first became familier with Trevanian when I was in high school and found The Eiger Sanction in the library. That was 23 or 24 years ago! I thought Eiger was the best book ever written. Boy was I wrong. Shibumi is a classic like no other. It is intence and exciting. It is filled with action, political commentary, cultural commentary, and some very subtle humor. I have been reading it over and over since the first year it was published. I couldn't even guess how many times I have read it. If you were going to be stranded on a desert island and could only have two books, this would have to be one of them.
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Shibumi
Shibumi by Trevanian (Mass Market Paperback - February 12, 1983)
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