Book Review — Shibumi by Trevanian

I finished Shibumi last night and today I spent a decent bit of mental energy shuffling my list of favorite books. I have no idea how I had never heard of this 1979 novel before this year, but there’s no doubt it has earned a spot on my list of favorites.

The historical fiction angle drew me to the novel. I think Amazon suggested it, based on my past purchase of Shogun, or perhaps Istanbul Passage by Joseph Cannon. For that itch, Shibumi didn’t disappoint. The novel is well-researched and touches subjects, times and places where my knowledge is a bit thin or even non-existent. It had me Googling and checking Wikipedia as I read, and taught me quite a bit along the way.

At its heart, inside its historical fiction wrapper, Shibumi is a novel of international intelligence and espionage. A corporate overlord, the Mother Company, controls the world’s top intelligence agencies (CIA, NSA, MI-5, etc.) and arranges twisted and uncomfortable, but not unbelievable, plots to maintain its grasp on the western world’s energy and information. How twisted and uncomfortable? How about a CIA mission in which it slaughters members of an Israeli cell set on foiling a PLO-backed plane hijacking? The Agency even kills, by design, some of its own agents in the process. Despite being published nearly 40 years ago, this aspect of the novel is, sadly, nowhere near being irrelevant or even dated. Indeed, it seems as believable and relevant today as, I suspect, it was in 1979.

Shibumi is a damn good satire, too. America and her people are clearly the favorite target of the author, Trevanian. Through humor and history, though, he jabs everything from the French to Volvos, and from religion to Andy Warhol. His distaste for all things American runs a bit thick in spots, which may turn some folks away. Their loss.

If history, intelligence, espionage, and satire aren’t enough to interest you, Shibumi is a novel of spelunking and Go, too, neither of which is added in only passing thought. Indeed, the two adventures into the Gouffre Porte-de-Larrau cave system, which bookend the rising action of the story, were favorite parts for me — the descriptions of the cave system and the physical demands of the journey placed me directly in both.

Characters? Nicholai Hel and Le Cagot have to be two of the most memorable I’ve encountered. And the minor characters — Mother Company man Mr. Diamond, CIA veteran agent Starr, the Gnome, Pierre the gardner, Hana, and Hannah, to name a few — provide a colorful, thoroughly developed and memorable ensemble.

Shibumi definitely earned a spot on my list of favorites, which means I’ll gladly mention it to friends and likely re-read it again someday.

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