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Spies and Shibumi


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TREVANIAN, author of The Eiger Sanction, Shibumi and The Summer of Katya, is no longer with us. He died on Dec. 14 in London. Even when he was alive, no one knew who he was, because Trevanian was merely a pseudonym. Rodney Whitaker was his real name, and he published both fiction and nonfiction under multiple pen names. He may be the only person who can claim to have sold millions of books worldwide without making one single promotional appearance or doing one single booksigning or live interview. The editor of Trevanian's website (www.trevanian.com) had this to say: "There are few geniuses in the world and now there is one less." Due to the wildly divergent genres of both his fiction and nonfiction, a myth eventually developed that the books were all written by a group of authors under the same pen name. But, alas, it was only a myth.

Trevanian never explored the same genre more than once, and those who are old enough to have followed his career from beginning (I'm not) always waited in anticipation to see what the hell he was going to write about next. His first novel to infiltrate the general public was The Eiger Sanction back in the '70s, and hardly anyone realized it was actually a spoof. However, for many of us, his 1979 international espionage masterpiece, Shibumi, was the real deal and is by far the most revered book among his fans. There was so much deep philosophical material buried among Shibumi's myriad threads that it went completely over the heads of some who read it as just a straight-up spy novel.

The main character is Nicholai Hel, born of Russian and German parents but raised in Japan during World War II. The quintessential part-Eastern-part-Western anti-hero, Hel strives to be the world's most artful lover and the world's highest paid assassin—all to achieve Shibumi, an untranslatable Japanese concept referring to the understated beauty that underlies everything in life. It represents an active spiritual tranquility, a personality of overwhelming calm, an effortless state of perfection and a natural urge to find harmony in all action. You can apply it to chess, ikebana flower arranging, martial arts or gardening. Hel applies it to assassination, and in the novel a supermonolith of international espionage known only as the Mother Company is trying to take him out. Hel lives in a Basque village in the Pyrenees with an expensive concubine and hangs out with all sorts of bizarre, unforgettable characters. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? The book is a vulgar, nasty, sarcastic, politically incorrect and downright glorious assault on the status quo, all of Western civilization and global capitalist sleaze, while functioning as top-notch espionage fiction at the same time. It's a perfect example of how a character with both Eastern and Western roots has a totally different perspective on the world.

Of course, many folks hated the book—primarily because it didn't fit into any one classifiable genre and therefore shattered their expectations—but it nailed several world issues that continue to dominate the landscape: the rise of the military-industrial complex, national government corruption, bumbling intelligence services and the Western idiocy of looking at the world in a black-or-white fashion.

Basically, Shibumi was an ingenious spoof of itself. Like the movie American Beauty, the characters were deliberately exaggerated and, as a whole, many folks just don't go for elitism as black humor. Trevanian had this to say about the book: "After the definitive exercise of the genre that was Shibumi, there was no point in me writing further in this genre ... or anyone else, for that matter."

How does all this relate to Silicon Valley? It doesn't, except that I spent many a long Sunday afternoon over beers discussing Shibumi with a certain bearded Vietnam veteran who is now '86ed from nearly every bar in downtown San Jose. I'm exactly half Eastern and half Western myself, so I completely identified with the main character, which is why the veteran turned me onto the book in the first place, all those years ago.

You see, Trevanian's fans have always been referred to as The Others and this is what Trevanian himself had to say about them: "The Trevanian Buff is a strange and wonderful creature: an outsider, a natural elitist, not so much a cynic as an idealist mugged by reality, not just one of those who march to a different drummer, but the solo drummer in a parade of one."

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From the December 28, 2005-January 3, 2006 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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