…(A)n ineffable quality…great refinement underlying commonplace appearances.

Thus, on page 74 of my paperback copy of the book Shibumi, does the author, Trevanian (1931-2003), through the character General Kishikawa Takashi, begin to describe to young Nicholai Alexandrovitch Hel the nature of this ‘quality.’

It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without pudency [prudishness]. In art where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi [celebration of that which is old and faded], it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi [cultivated simplicity and poverty], it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of man it is…how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that.

I have read this book at least a half-dozen times since its publication 30 years ago, and have given many copies away to friends and relatives. I feel now, after having just again read it, that I should memorialize it here so that it may not be necessary to read it again.

One cannot successfully characterize a book with so many historical references, vivid characters and deliberate stereotypes of nationalities, among its other, including ‘ineffable,’ facets and qualities. The author is man of strong opinions and may offend some who read the book, but one cannot be bored with it.

Trevanian dedicated the book to the four characters who helped shape the main player in this story, Nicholai Alexandrovitch Hel. The four are based on real people with, presumably, different names and identities:

    • General Kishikawa Takashi, trapped by culture, custom and circumstance into becoming the Governor of Japanese occupied Shanghai just prior to World War Two. Kishikawa-san becomes foster father to Nicholai Hel.
    • Otake-san, Seventh Dan Gô Master, mentor to Nicholas Hel in the board game of Gô, of which life is its shadow. As part of Otake-san’s instruction in life he tells Nicholas: “Do not fall into the error of the artisan who boasts of twenty years experience in his craft while in fact he has had only one year of experience—twenty times.”
    • Maurice de Lhandes, “The Gnome,” an invaluable ally, and friend, to Nicholas in his years as a professional assassin. De Lhandes has access to the darkest secrets of governments which he sells to those whom he can trust not to reveal his identity and location.
    • Le Cagot, a Falstaffian character, a Basque, who is Nicholas’s companion and fellow spelunker, or caver, after retirement from his former profession. Le Cagot is, among other attributes, a hero of the Basque resistance to the Spanish government.

    The ‘retired’ Nicholas Hel has a female companion, as well, who is a gently compelling character. In the spirit of shibumi I will say little more here. I will now put away my old friend, having drunk from his pages sufficiently, and, without yearning, anticipate the day when it will seem as natural as the rain to deliver it into the hands of a young visitor to my home.

    kareeda ni
    karasu no tomari keri
    aki no kure

    [on dead branches
    crows remain perched
    at autumn’s end]

    —Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)

    Shibumi is published by Ballantine Books, New York. Copyright © 1979 by Trevanian. ISBN 0-345-31180-9