Trevanian John Leonard - Essay

John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Trevanian, whose first name and whose real name are withheld from us, explains rather late in the murderous game of his new thriller, "Shibumi," that "only in Japan was the classical moment simultaneous with the medieval."…

This, of course, is quite silly. Classical moments and medieval moments are invested and invoked whenever historians, or novelists, have run out of ideas with which to scratch and itch in the narrative. Such moments coincide arbitrarily, according to the needs of mythic flimflam. (p. 262)

Much, in fact, of "Shibumi" is quite silly. It just happens to be the most agreeable nonsense in commercial fiction this spring. The Mother Company, a consortium of oil companies that wants to control all the energy in the world and that has an uneasy alliance with the property-gobbling Organization of Petroleum Exporting Country greedies, takes over the Central Intelligence Agency in order to rationalize terrorism. Mother is rather listlessly opposed by our warrior philosopher, Nicholai Hel, half Russian, half German, all anti-American, born in Shanghai, raised by a Japanese general, trained to play Go and to kill people with credit cards, a professional snob and assassin of terrorists, who seeks the illusive "shibumi."

What is "shibumi"? It is understanding, eloquent silence, articulate brevity, authority without domination, a spiritual tranquility that is not passive, "being without the angst of becoming," not to be achieved, but to be discovered by passing through knowledge to arrive at simplicity, and so on. Hel has a hard time arriving at simplicity even though he speaks seven languages, including Basque, which explains why we spend so much time in a Japanese garden in the Pyrenees, and despite his parapsychological gift of a "proximity sense" and his tendency to meditate, and his strange green eyes.

Although "Shibumi" can't stand synopsizing, it demands to be read. Mr. Trevanian has the inspired crankiness of a Robert Heinlein, plus a sense of bad humor. I am forced to admit that I loved this clever junk, and I particularly recommend those passages having to do with the bashing of Volvos and sex with a razor. (pp. 262-63)

John Leonard, in a review of "Shibumi," in The New York Times, Section III (copyright © 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 1, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. 11, No. 6, August 15, 1979, pp. 262-63).