Berton Roueché

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500


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["Shibumi"] is certainly not the kind of book that is bought to impress oneself or one's friends. Its popularity is, however, something of a puzzle.

"Shibumi" is a curiously old-fashioned novel. It often brings to mind such picaresque melodramas of the past as "Anthony Adverse" and "Scaramouche." Trevanian's elegant Anthony Adverse, his brilliant Scaramouche, is one Nicholai Alexandrovitch Hel, born in Shanghai in the nineteen-twenties of a White Russian mother and a German father, and raised and molded in wartime Japan. He is immediately perceived to be a superior being. Some of his excellence he owes to his mother's early influence: "One spoke of love and other trivia in French; one discussed tragedy and disaster in Russian; one did business in German; and one addressed servants in English." Some he owes to the Japanese general whose ward he becomes: "From that moment, Nicholai's primary goal in life was to become a man of shibumi; a personality of overwhelming calm. It was a vocation open to him while, for reasons of breeding, education, and temperament, most vocations were closed."…

Trevanian, though a doting biographer, is an oddly reticent one. He tells us in the most emphatic language that [Nicholai,] the world's highest-paid assassin (for all his delicacy of mind and body) is not only a formidable killer but also a most versatile one ("It has been estimated that, for Nicholai Hel, the average Western room contains just under two hundred lethal weapons"), yet he is stingy with example. (p. 101)

In the considerable interval between the conception of [the] plot and its execution, Trevanian treats us to a glowing account of the chief events of Nicholai's formative years and the nature of the man thus formed. We watch him puttering in his meditation garden. We watch him picking at his little meals of brown rice and fresh vegetables. We learn of his prowess as a lover…. We also learn that his bedroom skills (like his pocket comb, his door key, his drinking straw) are numbered among his weapons: "He had occasionally avenged himself on young women who had annoyed him by making love to them, using his tactical skills and exotic training to create an experience the woman could never approach again and would seek in vain through affairs and marriages for the rest of her life." Nicholai, for a man graced with the inner calm of shibumi, is easily annoyed: "The French driver's infantile recklessness often annoyed him, but not so much as did the typical Italian driver's use of the automobile as an extension of his penis, or the British driver's use of it as a substitute." Annoyance is, indeed, the passion of his life, and it finds its most passionate excitation in the United States and everything American. It then becomes contempt, and—since all the rest is melodrama—is the true subject of Trevanian's novel. (pp. 101-02)

Berton Roueché, "Best-Seller," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 26, August 13, 1979, pp. 101-02.

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